Thursday, October 18, 2007

All Rails in Space City

This afternoon the Metro board finally approved rail on Richmond putting the best line forward they could even if it wasn't the best line (Thanks Afton Oaks!). In a shocker that I don't think anyone expected, they also voted for light rail on all 5 lines! But after reading Christof's blog I was wondering if what he said about funding and the FTA was true? I haven't noticed any change in the funding mechanisms so what is going on down there? Is it possible that because Tom Delay is gone they have better support from their legislators (sans "I don't like rail" Culbertson)?

This was made possible by the other surprise of the day — the Southeast Line on Scott, along with all the other 2012 lines, will be light rail, thanks to new FTA funding rules. Thus, the Southeast Line and University Line will be able to share track on Scott. And that amended idea carried.
Perhaps they have been behind the scenes like Salt Lake City working out a deal with the feds to pay for their lines in bulk since they have a master plan. I think that might be the wave of the future so other cities might want to look close at how to plan a system then get funding for it rather than going line by line. We'll probably hear about it more in the coming days. From the Chronicle:

"We now feel we can pass federal muster (to obtain 50 percent funding) by going to light rail on all five lines at once," board chairman David Wolff said. "We can't help but believe that people will be thrilled by it."

In 2005, residents and elected officials along the planned North, East End, Southeast and Uptown lines were dismayed to learn that Metro analysis showed cost and ridership on them would be too low to justify federal funding for rail.

Check out the link to Christof for a new system map.


Christof Spieler said...

They explained that they got 3 changes from FTA:

(1) The ridership analysis for each of the 5 lines can include the other 4 new lines. Previously, METRO was forced to analyze each line as if it were the only new line to be built, completely ignoring the other lines that will open at the same time. Obviously, that really lowered ridership projections and thus cost/benefit ratio.

(2) METRO is allowed to take into account some modal preference for rail over bus.

(3) METRO is allowed to take into account development triggered by the rail line. Previously, the FTA had said that in a city without zoning, one could not anticipate future development.

Items (1) and (3) are pretty much Houston-specific: no other large city is unzoned, and no other city is doing an expansion that includes so many closely linked lines. I don't know if item (2) is Houston-specific or a general change in policy.

The cost-benefit requirements have not changed; it's just that Houston can count benefits more accurately.

Politically, it probably helped that the Democrats (the party of rail supporters Sheila Jackson Lee and Nick Lampson, among many others) took control of Congress from the Republicans, the party of rail critic John Culberson.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

That's really interesting and I wonder what it means for other cities that want to go through the process. This along with the Salt Lake deal might be opening up opportunities to other cities. The Kansas City Mayor wants to look at a regional system as does Tampa. If they look at trying to figure out how to fund a whole system at once, this might be the boost needed to get over the funding hump.

Christof Spieler said...

The "system rule" has the greatest benefit when a city is planning lines that link to multiple employment centers. Multiple downtown-to-suburb spokes have less synergy than multiple lines that link to secondary employment centers, universities, and medical complexes.