Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Restructuring Our Cities and Brains

I'm starting to think we should just scrap this New Starts system. First there needs to be more transit funding period. But second, why are we making cities fight each other tooth and nail for scraps when there is clearly a need and demand for better transit. A recent GAO report covers the issues related to the program, not the least of which is how bad the TSUB formulation is and how the cost-effectiveness measure is maiming projects.

Probably the best part of the report is the graphic explaining the TSUB process (AKA cost effectiveness). It's so freakin complicated but this is at least better than all that jargon.

But if you still want the jargon, there's plenty in the report. Here is a slap in the face though:
According to FTA, such transit user benefits are the distinct and primary benefit of transit investments. Most other benefits of transit projects, such as economic development, are considered secondary benefits because they are still directly related to mobility improvements. For example, transportation investments that improve the accessibility and attractiveness of certain locations can result in higher property values in those areas, which can affect the type and density of development that occurs in the area of the investment.

The transportation literature and different experts we consulted agreed that such increases in property values are generally the result of mobility improvements. As such, they noted that conducting a separate evaluation of secondary benefits, such as economic development, may be inappropriate because it can result in double counting certain project impacts.
I personally don't think its inappropriate at all. The reason being is that the type of development that happens near transit has other benefits that don't have to do with the mobility that happens with the transit itself. There's the energy efficient buildings benefit, the infrastructure cost reduction benefit, transportation cost savings from less driving due to walkability, pollution reductions from less driving due to walkability etc etc etc. I don't think that is counted in mobility or the cost-effectiveness measure, yet they are true benefits of transit investments.

A lot of people including some "experts" continue to have their head in the sand on this issue. A particular quote on page 46 will make some of you laugh, or perhaps cry.
One expert in particular said that FTA should retain its primary focus on funding projects that improve mobility and not on those designed to change the structure of cities.
Seriously? Because mobility problems of today have NOTHING to do with the awful structure of our cities. I'm sure that person doesn't mind that big freeway social engineering experiment that has been happening since the 1950's.


Anonymous said...

This country is god awful when it comes to public transport. As a non car owning New Yorker it's a real pain to get out of this city even though we have a "great" transit system. I've taken to riding my bike 30 miles out to the beach rather than deal with the overcrowded, overpriced and slow railroad ride out there. we need more trains!

- T

Morgan Wick said...

The problem is separating the transit-derived secondary benefits from the mobility-derived secondary benefits.

If other countries have a way of dealing with this problem send all our planners over there, or at least send them a copy of the formula they use.

M1EK said...

Agreed with Morgan, but the other other problem is that people are rightfully reluctant to spend federal dollars subsidizing economic development for folks who ought to be doing that for themselves.

Highways do this too, but you will not see many highways (outside Appalachia/Southeast) getting federal money on the basis of economic development.

Should we consider economic development when funding transportation? Yes! Should the Feds be paying for it? No. Let the city in question do that chunk of the equation. (Tell the Feds "because we think this transit project has ancillary economic development benefits for us, we'll pay 75% instead of 50% of the cost).

Cap'n Transit said...

Following Bertrand Russell, "I am improving mobility, you are changing the structure of cities, they are social engineering"

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Heh. Thanks Cap'n. I agree M1ek, projects shouldn't be built just for economic development, its kind of a side thing. But ignoring the benefits is another. I think part of the problem is the definition of "Economic Development" what does that mean anyway?

Morgan, yes its hard to separate them. The FTA says as much in the paper, but say, "It's too hard". I'm sure we could figure it all out if we thought about it.