Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Spinning Mary Peters

The Baltimore Sun didn't pull any punches today. They basically say what we in the transit blogosphere have been saying for a long time; that the current FTA administration doesn't take the long view on transit investments and is stingy when it comes to funding larger projects. Well the Baltimore Sun is fairly blunt but honest about what cost effectiveness should be, which is not the bare bones penny handouts for in traffic BRT that the FTA has recently been advocating.
Recent news that a Baltimore Red Line with all the proverbial bells and whistles may not be eligible for federal funding should come as no surprise. The Federal Transit Administration funding formula is notoriously stingy, and an east-west light rail line with much tunneling would be pricey.
This is understandable, we want to be smart with our money, but they go on to make more good points...
Every new transit line must demonstrate cost-effectiveness. That's just common sense. But the Bush administration tends to view such proposals far too conservatively while appropriating too little for transit.
This is proven true by Transportation Secretary Mary "Bikes Aren't Transportation" Peters commentary which ignores what has been going on around the country and how the FTA has been manipulating ridership estimates in many communities including Portland and Norfolk by ripping planned development out of the models that estimate ridership. They just don't seem to understand the benefits of transit investment and that shows through with their rating system which offsets future planning with existing density. If you have one or the other, you end up at medium and get no boost at all. Here's her spin from her blog.
The part that frustrated me the most, however, is that the Post is calling for massive increases in federal transit investments (on top of existing massive increases to federal transit spending) while calling for an end to performance standards designed to ensure that money is invested wisely. That the Post’s writers consider it bad policy to set performance standards, demand greater accountability and require honest ridership estimates before investing billions of the taxpayer’s dollars is nothing short of shocking.
Honest ridership estimates huh? How about those estimates in Charlotte and Minneapolis? They weren't allowed a modal constant and look what happens, over estimates! The fact of the matter is that using today's cost effectiveness measures, both of those projects would not have been funded! Today the CE measure must be a medium to receive funding. Both of these projects had medium low measures because of their lame ridership estimates pushed by the FTA.

So when she claims that the Post considers it bad to set standards, she's basically saying that it would have been ok to kill successful projects as long as not as much money was spent. What she's actually doing is projecting, Karl Rove style. Here is what the Post actually had to say:
Meanwhile, the administration has slashed spending on new mass transit projects while toughening approval criteria and insisting that states and localities pony up greater shares of such projects, often up to half. That has slowed the development of projects and, by so doing, has driven up costs. And while the administration is right to push congestion pricing, tolling and public-private partnerships as means to generate additional revenue and projects, they are not substitutes for a robust federal role in building the nation's mass transit capacity.
The Post has it right. The trend for cities now is to not even apply because the line is so long for funding. There is cutthroat competition for so little money that many don't even want to bother. What kind of system is that? It's sad that the spinning from the Bush administration has bled into the transportation department but what can we expect from folks who don't even understand why its important to build a tunnel or an electric light rail line. They see in one dimension, moving people. Many of us see in multi-dimensions, moving people and building places where people can move themselves with low energy. This however isn't counted in the formulas and that is exactly what the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun are getting at.

The end of her blog post is the most disturbing, considering her punches at "interest groups". Considering she once worked for Parsons Brinkerhoff and the FTA Administrator Jim Simpson started out as a trucker, its no wonder they would try to hit down livability and transit advocates as a special interest, again she's projecting for the road lobby.
Instead of providing an informed analysis of our substantial transportation record, the Post’s editorial writers offered a simplistic rehash of special interest groups’ talking points. Instead of asking whether transit agencies are using the money they have today either wisely or well, they called for fewer federal investment standards. And instead of offering a relevant contribution to the transportation dialogue, they offered rusty rhetoric and faulty facts.
A substantial record that has called bike lanes a waste of money, has tried to build freeway toll lanes with transit capital money and taken bus capital money and given it to a select five cities to push their congestion pricing agenda. Spending money wisely includes figuring out ways to use less oil and allow people to spend less money on transportation. Rail and other new starts projects have proven their worth in this regard, which makes it hard to understand her reasoning that boosting investment and using better measures should be stalled using "cost effectiveness". Like the Post says, pricing has its place, but in her mind, Secretary Peters will always be about making it easier for cars in cities, but without alternatives we'll all choke, coughing up more of our hard earned money to get where we want to go.

1 comment:

Rollie Fingers said...

Great post.

I will say, though, while the FTA is incredibly backwards right now, MTA Maryland's Red Line proposal also has considerable flaws in connectivity, grade separation and probable ridership.

My organization, the Transit Riders Action Council of Baltimore (TRAC) has been pushing for years for the MTA to study heavy rail alternatives for the Red Line, which they eliminated from consideration back in 2004 (under a Republican administration, it should be noted).

The MTA's current plan for the Red Line would be an improvement over the status quo, but we at TRAC think our proposals are better in every way. Check us out at