Well sort of. Today the 2005 dear colleague letter that then FTA Administrator Jennifer Dorn released on the world requiring that all New Starts projects have a medium rating on their cost effectiveness has been rescinded. Many have hailed this as a huge step forward for livability advocates but honestly its only half of the picture. One of the reasons I believe that the medium rating was imposed was to build more cheap BRT projects and cut out subway and lrt projects. But another reason was to cut all the junk projects out of the funding loop. With only about $8 billion dollars available for new starts projects in the last transportation bill, it leaves the need for regions to pick up the hundreds of billions more needed to build out transit networks. One estimate pegged the total at approximately $250 billion dollars. That is a huge gap.
So while some newspapers including the New York Times believe that this is opening up the funding floodgates, they are sorely mistaken. It does however change a few dynamics that have been holding projects back. The Central Corridor in Minneapolis is a curious case. They have been wanting to add a station in St. Paul to serve lower income community however it slowed down the travel time just enough to push the line over the index. This is just one example of how suburban to downtown speedy travel is emphasized over shorter trips in denser communities by the existing cost effectiveness index. Yonah has specifically mentioned another Minneapolis project that I also believe is headed in the wrong direction.
Dropping the medium requirement also takes a step towards making us think harder about what we're really building transit for. Is it for existing population or the future population or both? A common comment about the current cost effectiveness rating is that it would have never funded the DC or New York Subways. But DC and New York would not have gotten to where they are now in terms of density without the investments in the subway. Really this is a chance to start thinking about how to make transformative investments in transit around the country. It's an opportunity we've been waiting for, but as with all big ideas, it needs money.