» Federal government commits to funding share for project, but the city isn’t yet ready for full investment. Should Washington be promising money for under-planned programs?
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Fort Worth $25 million to begin work on a new inner-city streetcar line, putting it in the ranks of a small group of lucky cities that received similar funds from Washington, including Charlotte, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. The grant, according to the government, will go to a 2.5-mile one-way rail loop through the center city with 20 to 25 stations, to be served by three vehicles.
The exact route has yet to be defined, because the city is in the midst of a large-scale study of six potential corridors extending from the office district into the surrounding neighborhoods. The routes all connect to the Intermodal Transit Center east of downtown, where streetcars would meet up with Trinity Railroad Express commuter trains, Amtrak, and local buses. In order to receive the federal grant, the city is required to provide at least a 20% local match.
Fort Worth’s luck in receiving funds over a whole host of competing cities hasn’t prevented some local politicians from criticizing the project and questioning whether the city should move ahead with the line. Councilman Jungus Jordan, a long-time streetcar opponent, suggested last week that other infrastructure investments were more critical to the future of the city. The council still must approve a source of local funds — likely to be based in a form of tax-increment financing in the affected districts — to ensure the rail program’s successful implementation.
If opposition is fomented, the current schedule for the program could be pushed aside and a dream for a rail line through the center city could be set aside, just as it has been repeatedly over the past decade. But if all goes well, the city estimates that it will be able to recommend phasing for the system by September; the initial segment could be up and running in four years. The DOT’s claim that it is sponsoring a “streetcar loop” doesn’t mean that a route has been determined; Fort Worth could alter its preferred alignment and still collect the federal grant, presumably as long as the line connects the Intermodal Transit Center with the business district.
The Obama Administration is making a policy of prioritizing streetcar connections between intercity rail stations and office areas, as proven by grants to do so in Detroit, New Orleans, and Tucson. The Fort Worth line would fit well within that effort and encourage the extension of the city’s “livable,” walkable areas — now the stated end goal of the DOT in approving new transportation projects.
But the situation in Fort Worth suggests that the DOT may be putting too much trust in the potential of some local governments to move forward on planning construction projects and to establish revenue sources apart from those provided by the federal government.
Unlike the streetcar lines proposed for Charlotte and Cincinnati, which are basically ready for construction, Fort Worth’s line is under-planned. The fact that the city has yet to settle on a final alignment is problematic since it means that Washington is agreeing to finance a project that has yet to be fully defined. Is that sound policy?
Under the New Starts process, which admittedly funds much larger capital projects, transit authorities must undergo years of studies and public review before receiving money for construction from the federal government. By the time the DOT has signed a full funding grant agreement, ensuring financial support for a defined percentage of costs, transit agencies have had to justify their choice of transportation mode, choose a specific alignments, pick stop locations, establish estimated ridership figures, and guarantee local financial support for the rest of the project’s cost.
Fort Worth, not required to do so under the Urban Circulator program from which it received funding, has done none of that so far. But it will have to go through many of the same steps before it can begin laying tracks in the street.
To some extent, that’s good news, since it means that the federal government won’t be as severe in the future about distributing money to public transportation projects, which have traditionally been forced to submit to a far more rigorous evaluation process than highway projects. On the other hand, there’s a lot of merit to the idea that Washington shouldn’t be throwing money around willy-nilly; why should Fort Worth get funds if it’s years away from using them? Shouldn’t the government wait to award money until when cities are ready to use it for construction?
But the under-preparedness of this Texas city may be a reflection of the federal government’s attempts to speed the grant distribution process beyond the capacity of local governments that had no access to cash for streetcar lines just two years ago. There was little federal planning money available until recently to pay for studies considering these types of projects. I can only hope that in the future that the DOT can be a bit more exacting in allocating construction dollars only to cities that are prepared to take advantage of them.