Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Reading the New Starts Report

I cracked open the 2009 New Starts Report today and started reading through the ratings and commentary, there were a few themes that jumped out at me.

Bus Bias: We know that the FTA has been anti-rail recently from the uproar over the Dulles decision, but the new starts report is laden with pro-bus undertones. It's not just that they are for buses, but that they don't think transit is important and are looking for short term cheap solutions that don't address the problems. I suggest a look at the promotion of BRT in the Small Starts category. Take a look and see how many of them have dedicated guideways, very few, most with a small percentage of the running way. To me, just as Aaron said over at Metro Rider LA today, this is a waste of money. And as much as I like streetcars, they need their own lane if they are going to be doing line haul operations.

The FTA has introduced a new metric to judge projects called Making the Case, which is highly subjective and seems to push against the choice of locally preferred alternative (LPA) by local jurisdictions. While the government might want to be watchful over money, I don't understand where they would know better than the locals about what type of transportation is wanted or needed.

A few examples from Sacramento ,Charlotte, and Orlando.

Sacramento - However, the “case” does not explain why an extension of LRT is better than anything else that can be done to meet mobility needs in the corridor. Downtown express buses are dismissed as adding congestion to downtown streets without quantifying their effect, and of not serving intermediate stations in the existing South LRT line without providing evidence of travel demand to such areas. Joint development opportunities presented in the Making the Case document are reflected in the project’s ratings for transit-supportive land use.

Charlotte - The “case” for the project acknowledges that the Northeast Corridor is low density with auto-oriented development patterns. Given the description of the existing corridor, it is unclear from the “case” for the project why the LRT line is preferred over more economical bus improvements.

Orlando - The CFRCT project would result in a new rail transit line running north-south parallel to I-4 and through downtown Orlando. The “case” for the project provides no discussion of travel patterns within this corridor. While travel time comparisons between rail, bus, and private vehicle were presented for three origin-destination pairs, there was no explanation of why these pairs are highlighted. I-4 is described as congested and getting worse, but the “case” for the project provides no justification that it will effectively serve I-4 travel markets, or why a significant investment in rail operating at 15-minute peak frequencies is necessary in a corridor in which existing bus transit service is described as “limited.”

I'll tell you why Mr. New Starts writer guy, because people don't get excited about riding a bus on a freeway. Developers don't spend money on dense development around freeway bus service. When we think of why cities build rail, which is to attract new riders, new development, and increase operating efficiency, we know now that these things don't matter any more to the folks in the Bush FTA and pushing economical bus improvements gets minimal or no ridership and land use increases. You get what you pay for.

Operations efficiency importance reduced: The operating efficiency measure that was once measured has been rolled into our favorite overarching measure, cost effectiveness. Again people will say that this is rolled into the cost effectiveness measure but not separating it out from the annualized project costs of the C/E limits visibility of the benefits. It also ignores the fact that generating greater ridership numbers by rail with lower per rider costs can grow ridership for transit agencies at a lower operations cost. Remember that the LACMTA spent over a billion dollars on buses because of the consent decree but ridership stayed flat.

As adopted in the June 2007 Guidance on New Starts and Small Starts Policies and Procedures, FTA will no longer evaluate operating efficiencies as stand-alone criteria. Instead, this document clarifies that the operating efficiencies of proposed New Starts projects are adequately captured under FTA’s measure for cost effectiveness.
Ignoring transit's ability to change land use: It seems that there is an attempt to undermine transit lines that do not go through the densest areas. We already know that when you ask them about measuring economic development, they kind of shrug their shoulders and say "we can't do it". In the most recent NPRM the FTA stated, "Although many studies have shown, ex poste, that transit projects have had an impact on economic development, few predictive tools are available in standard practice and development of new tools seems infeasible in the short run." In other words, we don't want to do it.

There is another new measure in the land use category called "Performance and Impacts of Policies". This is supposed to assess how policies to promote transit oriented development are working. Well in the North Corridor in Charlotte, its reported that the market is not there yet. Well duh, the development market follows the line, yet its penalized for not being there yet (gets a medium instead of a high). This is contrary to what we've seen along the South Corridor, which is documented in the North Corridor report.

The Charlotte CBD has seen a considerable amount of residential as well as commercial development in recent years. In the South Corridor, the pace of development has been slow but is accelerating with $300 million in projects completed and over $1.5 million proposed in station areas outside of Uptown.

Strong regional growth is forecast(75 percent by 2030) and a market analysis for the Northeast Corridor suggested that just over 5,000 acres (84 percent of station area land) had the potential for redevelopment. Current market conditions in most Northeast Corridor station areas are relatively weak, however, and barriers exist that appear to limit development potential in the near term.
I'm not quite sure how they came up with a medium rating with the information that they give above. How do they decide to rate these things anyway? I've read the land use guidance and it doesn't make it very clear either. Another thing that does not make sense to me is that even if the city has good transit supportive land use policies, the existing land use could kill it, pushing rail's value for building places instead of just transporting people down and marginalizing it. I'm sure that is their hope, and was pointed out quite well in a recent editorial in the Washington Post:

Shaping cities is both a goal and a consequence of investing in transportation infrastructure. Sadly, the Federal Transit Administration seems unaware of this.

But this is more than just eleventh-hour federal shock therapy over money. The FTA's stance is emblematic of long-standing, misguided national policy concerning all forms of rail transportation. America has been persistently reluctant to think long-term and to make long-term investments in transit serving both regional and national interests.
Reauthorization is coming up soon, hopefully some of these things and misunderstandings of transit's power to change its environment can be changed.


Alex B. said...

Great write-up. Thanks for synthesizing all of this, no matter how frustrating it is.

M1EK said...

TOD via the Feds was always a mistake - transportation dollars should be spent on solving existing mobility problems. If streetcar lines truly promote denser development, in other words, they should be funded by the locality and the developer - not the Feds, who have bigger problems to deal with (the 99.99% of us that already live here and need help).

The Making The Case stuff sounds actually good to me too. Shocker; but I want to see some critical analysis of stupid small starts, and these are exactly the questions to ask, whether you're a Republican who just hates transit, or somebody who loves transit but wants the scarce dollars put where they will work best.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

If this sounds good to you then you can kiss Austin ever getting federal funding for light rail goodbye. If you and the feds think that transit is just about moving people then we're stuck in the 1950's and we can expect awful BRT projects like the one that was going to be on the 1 route that didn't do anything. Freeways are for moving people too and look where that got everyone.

Under the current scheme of needing a medium C/E rating, The Hiawatha Line, the Charlotte Line, The New Denver Line, The Orange Line BRT, and a slew of other projects would have never been built. Why were they built? Because they had good land use ratings due to good TOD guidelines that raised the overall project rating. Now we know that the models were low on these lines and they would have passed if they got the modeling right. But they didn't and the models are mandated by FTA. If you're all about existing mobility, i expect you will get stuck with more crappy BRT.

j said...

Hey FYI: Developement has been happening in Charlotte in anticipation of light rail in the Northeast Corridor. there have already been several developements that have been biult because a lightrail station would be built nearby. In addition there are already millions of dollars of developement planned along the whole corridor, and several high-profile planned mixed-use projects in the North Corridor in anticipation of commuter rail. Not to mention UNCC and Universty City are making massive revitilization plans on campus and along N. Tryon street (the road along which the light rail would run). Uniersity City also has the State's second largest job base with an expected 70% increase by 2030. So i am not sure how the feds can ignore all of the developement and plans that are already there even though light rail will not be untill 2015 at the earliest.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

J, If that is what's happening in anticipation of the line, I wonder what will happen when its built. I'm pretty impressed by the South Corridor, what is the availability of land in the Northeast Corridor like?

I also know that many developers on the streetcar line are upset that its going to be a long time before it gets built...sounds like they need to pitch in some more if they want it sped up. Have you seen the track construction on Elizabeth Ave?

M1EK said...

"If this sounds good to you then you can kiss Austin ever getting federal funding for light rail goodbye."

2000's plan would have made it through this gauntlet (or could, I should say; I'm sure CM did their share of TOD talk since everybody else was doing it; but there's plenty of existing unserved demand). On the other hand, now that the good track is taken, there's no light rail plan for Austin that has a prayer of getting federal funding even under Pres. Obama, so no loss there either way.

I would also apply the same strategy to federal road dollars, by the way. No more money from the Feds for roads whose primary purpose is to open up areas for more suburban sprawl.

j said...

The developement in the South Corridor has impressed everyone- 1.5 billion dollars is alot of developement for South Blvd. Most of the Northeast Corridor has been built out except for a few large parecels at the end of the line (Mallard Creek & 485 stations) and large section of land that is currently blocked from developemnt by a freeway. However the biggest oppurtuntiy comes in the way of redevolopement on the inner section of the line. particularly in NoDa (36 Street Station) and at the Asian Corners Shopping Center and NorthPark Mall (Sugar Creek & Eastway Stations). There are also plans to create a "downtown" University City along the line (Harris/Tryon & U. City Stations).
They have not started laying the Streetcar tracks yet- all they have done so far is make a large mess trying to relocate utlities. I am glad though that the city was smart engough to integrate track construction with repaving work instead of tearing up the srteet twice. I think the City and Cats should go ahead and do that along Trade and Beattie's Ford since they are in a much greater need of repaving than Elizabeth. It would certainly make the cost of the Streetcar less.