Thursday, April 12, 2007

Federal Gravy Train

It's often the federal government that's giving out money for transportation. Well they aren't really giving it out, we paid them taxes and they give it back to us. In places like the Bay Area we get back less than we pay in. Why is it that regions who pay the most money act as welfare areas to the other parts of the state or country. I certainly don't want my money going to build Don Young's Alaska bridge to no-where. But how much extra money would there be if there was a regional system instead of a state system? It's an interesting question that might get an interesting answer if i had the data.

So yesterday two bay area congressional members, one of them is my Gramma's congresswoman, asked the congressional transportation overlord for more money back. I think its great but I'm wondering what types of projects it would go to. Freeway expansion? I don't care about that since i don't use the freeway often, and if i do, it's on Wednesday night when no one is on it and I still pay the bridge toll, which brings me to my next point...freeway o holics love to say that highways are paid for by user fees. But what about those of us who pay gas taxes but don't drive on the freeway, or drive on the freeway that doesn't get any of that money. I hardly call that a user fee. It sounds like subsidy to me given that none of my gas tax money goes to my street.

I think M1ek touched on this at one point but when are suburbanites gonna realize they are just freeloading off the people who use surface streets? I'm all for tolls and perhaps if people had to pay the true cost of suburbanization, they might realize, well of course we should build more transit and collectively ride it, it would save us a ton of money. I know i know, wishful thinking.

Anyways, perhaps we shouldn't have a federal gravy train at all. Transportation monies should go to regional entities rather than national ones. Then we'll get the money the region needs and it will be spent on regional problems. I dunno. Thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Actually, most of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding is apportioned out to regions based on factors collected each year through the National Transit Database (NTD).

New Starts is actually less than 20% of the total FTA budget every year. But you'd never know it from the yelling and screaming that goes on about New Starts from the likes of Randal O'Toole, Wendell Cos, Ken Orski, and many other rail-bashers. Rail capacity expansion is still considerably less than 10% of the total new urban capacity provided by the Feds, states, cities and private developers, even when considering local funding for rail expansion put into the pot in places like Charlotte, Phoenix, St. Louis, and so forth.

The real problem is that FTA funding for New Starts is an order of magnitude than what I think is justified, given the twin converging problems of global warming and pending peak oil production. The FTA criteria for deciding which projects are funded is still way too easy to manipulate, both towards overstating the case for "bus rapid transit" (BRT) when FTA is in the mood to prejudice themselves agains t new rail projects. I'd rather FTA to greatly simplify the New Starts process by doing three key things:

(1) for new LRT lines, state they WILL NOT pay for entire street rebuildings ROW to ROW lines, JUST the elements related directly to new LRT or BRT service (this factor probably accounts for $40 million+/- of the $70 million per mile for the Phoenix LRT, for example.)

(2) Figure out what the passenger traffic density economic threshold for rail versus bus really is, and fund 80% of project costs. If a region wants to fund rail projects UNDER this threshold, the local share requirement goes in reverse proportion to ridership projections; e.g., for example, if a particular project doesn't meet the 5,000 daily passenger miles per two-way route mile threshold suggested by, if it's only 3,000 dpm/rm, then the local match is 40% or more...

By all means, total potential ridership INCLUDING those diverted from buses should be the primary criteria here; trying to calculate the percentage diverted from buses is a mostly meaningless exercise if the transit operator has sufficient ongoing funds to operate the new rail line, AND divert the newly surplus buses to improved bus service ELSEWHERE in the given region as Portland TriMet has traditionally done when opening new MAX lines.

(3) Finally, FTA needs to state the maximum they would pay 80% of, e.g., for surface LRT, let's say $30 million per mile, elevated, $50 million per mile, some lower percentage of subway, etc. Obviously some other set limit will be needed for increasingly unique projects like L.A.'s "subway to the sea," which is very expensive but is also likely to carry very high traffic volumes relative to potential investment costs. In this case, the majority of new subway riders will be diverted from buses, but will also enjoy major time savings that probably can justify the $5 billion+/- investment in that project.

Michael D. Setty

Note to readers: The collection of "Special Reports" that includes our rail transit traffic density threshold research is currently offline. If you want a copy of this, email me!

Anonymous said...

That is, (New Start funding) order of magnitude LESS than what I think is justified...

Mr. Overhead Wire, email me! I am also in the Bay Area, e.g., Napa. I was the Vallejo transit planner for 20 years...let's go to lunch sometime...(couldn't find your email on blog...)

Mike Setty

Mike said...

Here's my best summary of that gas tax wrt surface streets issue:

Applies to varying degrees depending on where you are. Some states require that the state DOT funnel more or less of their state gas tax down to localities; some maintain a greater or smaller share of major arterials; and some aren't as reactionary about the discretionary federal dollars as Texas is.

IE, we're (Texas) the worst; but there isn't any state where the subsidy equation isn't tilted towards the suburbanite driver.