Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Breaking Development in the Transit Space Race

Something big happened today. The Utah transit authority and the FTA signed an agreement that would allow the federal government to pay for 20% of Salt Lake Cities 5 line rail expansion. I'm not quite sure yet who got the better deal, but I think it was the Utah Transit Authority. According to the Deseret News:

UTA general manager John Inglish said the letter of intent, known as a memorandum of understanding, was an unprecedented agreement between a state agency and the Federal Transit Administration. Normally, transit agencies approach the federal government for funding on projects one-by-one, not as a package deal, he said.

Because the letter of intent applies to all five projects, Inglish said his agency will save what would have been years of waiting through a lengthy federal funding process.

So instead of going through the New Starts process while waiting for the FTA to reject their projects or cause cost inflation and change station locations to fit the ridership model which favors bus projects, they can actually plan to come in under budget and on time and with the projects the voters wanted. The memorandum of understanding states that UTA will fund two light rail lines and a commuter line on it's own while the FTA pays for 80% of two other light rail lines.

Ever since the New Starts program started, the federal share has been dwindling for fixed guideway projects. Starting out on the same footing as highways, federal funding began at 80% of the project cost but has since dwindled to 50% with a 10 year waiting period. While 20% overall might be a little low, the signing of the document today by the UTA has opened up options for cities that want to get into the transit space race. Cities that have been able to raise local money yet have a master plan to build a transit system. This fits into one of the reasons why I started this blog, which is to document the transit space race.

This might be a good model for cities that are just now looking to build light rail networks or who might want to get back into the hunt. Now it should be said that in keeping up with Denver and Portland, Salt Lake City had a referendum to raise their sales tax to fund their rail extensions. I know there have been a few thoughts that this might be happening but UTA was traveling under the radar until this announcement. Other cities might take notice and see this as an opportunity to make a deal with the FTA. Minneapolis is looking to build 3 more LRT lines, Tampa just announced a new rail plan and Birmingham is starting to think about it.

Houston tried to do this a few years ago but the idea got blocked by former Rep Tom Delay and John Culbertson. They asked that the FTA fund the first two rail lines while they built the next two locally. They were asking for 50% of the total and before that they were trying to use the main street line as a match. Because they couldn't get it through though, they had to downgrade some lines to BRT.

As I said before, this is a pretty big deal. It might signal a big change in how transit expansion is going to get funded. Hopefully it moves back up from 20% and perhaps the death of the process that has caused so many problems by taking quick decision making away from local jurisdictions.

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