Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Detroit's Federal Dilemma

Detroit is stuck in federal funding hell. They want to spend public and private funds to build a new light rail line down Woodward. Now this would be no big deal usually but since they want to get federal funding as a match later, they are being asked to go through the environmental process that requires all new starts projects to follow NEPA requirements.

Now this is a demonstration of what is wrong with the federal process. It discourages transit agencies from seeking alternative sources of funding for a first line and ensures that lines will take a really really long time to build as the city waits for federal approval. An example I always give is the fact that the Seattle Streetcar (local funding) and Charlotte light rail line (federal funding) opened at approximately the same time in 2008. Yet Seattle began as an idea in 2005 and Charlotte before 1998.

Second is that a huge environmental document must be completed to build a streetcar for a street that once had a streetcar on it before it was ripped out. This seems arbitrary and un-necessary to me. If there is an environmentally sensitive area along the line then please do a study to make sure the impacts aren't great, but if we're talking about going down the center of a street, let's stop pretending like an environmental assessment is anything more than consultant money.


Anonymous said...

"Second is that a huge environmental document must be completed to build a streetcar for a street that once had a streetcar on it before it was ripped out."

Sounds a lot like the New Haven-Springfield commuter rail in Connecticut. That line is amazingly delayed so that an environmental study can be done on a line that already has daily Amtrak use and that also has had daily passenger and freight use since the 1840s!

Joe Klein said...

Milwaukee may have a similar problem. The funding approved for a starter trolley line is coming out of an old fund from an aborted but funded project over twenty years ago. The fund has been whittled down over the years, with the last part divided between the pro rail major and the anti rail county executive. The mayor figures the city can build a three mile starter trolley line based partially on what remains.

Now it seems that because this falls outside the box, the FTA can't figure out if they can release the funds without the requisite new start style environmental impact study.

Woody said...

This system heavily tilts the competition in favor of highways and against transit.

Every state has a Dept of Highways (usually renamed a DoT now, a lie) that plans many highway projects years in advance. The state bureaucrats, or highwaycrats, push along their various road expansion plans with their necessary environmental impact statements and other paperwork year by year. If one project is delayed for some reason, a dozen other highways in the state are in line to use the money.

Transit projects are usually done as one-offs, by a team pulled together ad hoc, and put into an obstacle course competition for funding that most will lose.

Meanwhile, what is the environmental impact of continuing to build highways everywhere all the time, or of letting the once great city of Detroit sink into total ruin? We don't measure those factors, and they have no role in the funding decisions.

Anonymous said...

To do an environmental study for a place that ONCE had track is a total waste of money!

Matt Fisher said...

This sucks! They should have just kept the streetcars on Woodward (and a few other noteworthy places in Detroit). I could say the same in other similar Midwestern cities, as in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, and Milwaukee.