The FTA is really trying to kill rail projects in the United States. So it seems are the folks over at the Sierra Club in Seattle. In Charlotte, the FTA is requiring that the North Corridor LRT be 65% through preliminary engineering before they can enter into preliminary engineering in the federal process. This means that you can do all of the work and they can come in and say they don't like it, which means you might be out of luck and need to spend millions to re-engineer something they don't like. It used to be 30% so the plan could be analyzed earlier. My first question would be if they make BRT projects do the same or if they get special treatment because they are the administrations favorite mode. Another question is why does the FTA have so much power over transit projects but the FHWA just doles out highway money to the states to spend on whatever freeway they like? They pay 80% for freeways and 50% for transit, doesn't seem fair that they have control over where your line goes or define your project by what they think cost effectiveness is (hint: no one's cost effectiveness is the same as theirs except anti transit folks).
I wouldn't have a problem with this if the FTA had more money and was likely to fund more projects. But they don't and they aren't. In fact lately they have been tightening the screws. This year had the least number of projects in the new starts process than any year previous. In the late 90s there were usually around 40 projects in Preliminary Engineering. Today there are 10. Yes 10 projects. Out of all the planned projects (At least 50) that I've listed in the Transit Space Race for expansion in the United States, there are only 10 projects in preliminary engineering. Administrator Simpson claims that the Bush administration has funded more projects than during Clinton, but we know that most of these projects were started during the 90s and they are only now able to start shutting off the money with Secretary Peters at the helm.
This is a direct result of the Bush administration's disdain for transit. And while its likely to get better with a new administration, there is going to be a big fight for the new transportation bill to see where money goes in 2009. The Mary Peters set including Wendell Cox and Ken Orski are saying that there is no need for new rail starts in the United States. They say the rail expansion is over and right now they have the ears of the politicos at the FTA.
Which brings me to Seattle. The Sierra Club all over the United States has really fried my bacon, with the exception of Boston. Those guys are doing a great job, but here in Marin and up in Seattle they don't get it. In Marin like Seattle, the SC is lobbying against the train because it will bring growth. It's coming whether you like it or not. You can let all those people drive all the way into town or you can build a line that allows for TOD and expansion of transit PMT. But in addition, whether you like it or not, parking is big in the FTA models I discussed above which are a large part of the cost effectiveness measure. In fact, I would wager that if the Sierra Club got its wish, there would be no federal money for the extensions in Seattle and the lines would be funded completely by local taxes. I'm not sure that would sit well with folks up there. There are better ways to control growth than not building an important transit line.