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Colin Peppard’s Blog

The (Transit Policy) Change We've Been Waiting For!

Colin Peppard

Posted January 13, 2010

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Well, one of them anyway...

Today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a big move toward putting transit on a more level playing field in federal transportation funding decisions, while encouraging communities to work to maximize the "livability" benefits of transit investments. This would be a significant change in federal transit policy, helping many communities around the U.S. to initiate new transit projects, while improving the way that these projects are planned, designed, and built, with an eye toward environmental benefits.

For years, sustainable transportation advocates have highlighted how public transit is put at a distinct disadvantage in federal transportation funding decisions.  Public transit projects receive only 50 cents on the dollar in federal matching funds, compared to 80 cents of federal money for highway projects.  

Adding insult to injury, proposals for public transportation projects must also clear a series of high bureaucratic hurdles.  Among the most vexing is a "cost-effectiveness" thresh hold that is used as the primary consideration in making project funding decisions.  No similar standards - or many standards at all, beyond safety, really - exists for road and highway proposals.

Cost-effectiveness basically works like this. The reduction time savings for transit users that would result from the proposed project are divided into  its cost.  Only those projects that show significant time savings move forward. While such time savings and congestion relief are certainly important considerations in transit decisions, they are only a small piece of the puzzle.

The many other benefits transit investments bring to local communities are all but ignored. I helped to write a report on these "co-benefits" with the Center for Clean Air Policy last year.  The case studies presented very clearly illustrate the real benefits that accrue to communities that choose to invest in public transit.

Sec. LaHood's announcement formally begins the process of figuring out how to count these benefits in a fair way, and incorporating them into funding decisions.  This means that transit proposals will no longer seek to arbitrarily reduce travel times (often by limiting intermediate stations or choosing less-than-ideal routes that limit other benefits) or cut costs (by eliminating important design features that can better integrate a project into that community or make it more accessible and convenient for passengers) just to improve its chances of receiving federal support. 

Rather, communities can design projects to maximize environmental benefits, convenience to riders, and local economic development potential to increase the chances of federal support.  The ultimate outcome will be better transit projects that serve communities and riders more effectively while enhancing the local economic, social, and environmental co-benefits.

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Dave ReidJan 14 2010 10:11 AM

This is great news. Hopefully now some great projects, like the Milwaukee Streetcar, can move forward (maybe even start phase 2 planning!)..

Free TransitJan 21 2010 10:44 PM

Here is the problem: "careful planning." Instead we should let the market rule. Use the money to reduce the auto-system subsidy. How? Remove the restraint-of-trade tariff (fare) from public transit. This tariff exists mainly to discourage use. Small business is suffocated by congestion and parking woes -- big box stores benefit. If you impose light rail and such on top of the auto you will just make enemies for public transit with the ensuing mess.

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