Friday, October 26, 2007

Why The Decision in Houston is a Big Deal for Everyone

While the decision to go with Light Rail for 5 corridors caught a lot of people by surprise in Houston, it might have opened up a floodgate for cities to get funding for new transit projects. I can't stress enough how big this network effect is to cities who want to build new rail transit networks. Because the federal funding process is getting tighter, cities that want to build rail networks are going to have to get creative and Denver, Houston, and Salt Lake City have so far done that in their quest for funding.

It's interesting to note that some folks around the country might have been paying attention. Mayor Funkhouser in Kansas City believes that its a regional plan or nothing for his area. Some have thought it was a bit heavy handed of him to declare Clay Chastain's plan dead, but if he's thinking about really getting federal funding for a new transit system, he needs to lead the region towards a solution that will eventually get funding. Through the current rules, it looks like a high ridership starter line that can pass the current administration's cost effectiveness test (which Chastain's plan might not have) is how it should start. The other reason is that you'll need this first line to fund an extended network later.

But because the current rules are geared towards low end BRT projects, (The Orange Line and Euclid BRT projects would have not passed the required Medium cost-effectiveness rating rule the administration wants) Houston's recent deal might breathe new life into the application process for new expansion lines in cities that want to drastically expand their systems. Currently cities like Minneapolis are building a line every 10 years, meaning a simple 6 line network could take 40 more years. A problem might arise however with cities that don't have a starter line so that the rail bias can be attained for ridership measures.

It's been pretty easy to get extensions funded by the FTA in the past and they are generally the best modeled in terms of ridership. But the FTA has been making projects cut down their costs to make the rating. The Central Corridor has had a cap on how much it can cost meaning the locals don't have complete control over some of the decisions including a tunnel under the university because of that cost. This is a project that should have been built about 30 years ago but people are just starting to get it. But Minneapolis has plans for two more lines, the Southwest Corridor and the Northwest Corridor. So if cities are going to get serious about building expansive transit networks, Houston has shown the way to go for the time being. With a new administration who knows what could happen, but if you have to dance with who brung ya, it seems like Houston has opened the door to the ball.

1 comment:

nhct said...

New Haven has hired a consultant to look into a streetcar: TranSystems.