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.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.
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.”
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.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:
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.
Shaping cities is both a goal and a consequence of investing in transportation infrastructure. Sadly, the Federal Transit Administration seems unaware of this.Reauthorization is coming up soon, hopefully some of these things and misunderstandings of transit's power to change its environment can be changed.
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.