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Posts from the "David Burwell" Category

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FTA Opens the Door For More Transit Expansions to Receive Federal Funding

One of the most important federal transit programs has undergone a makeover, and transit advocates are cheering the results.

Seattle's Sound Transit light rail was funded in part by the New Starts program Photo: T4America

The Federal Transit Administration late last month released new evaluation criteria for transit projects vying for funds from the New Starts and Small Starts programs. These two programs dispensed a total of $2 billion last year, providing roughly half the funding for transit expansions in the U.S.

Previously, the FTA relied heavily on “travel time savings” to judge the merits of a project. The new formula will focus instead on the number of passengers expected to be served. Economic benefits like the impact on development will also be considered.

The new criteria also employ broader measures of the environmental benefits of transit. Instead of using the EPA’s air quality formula as the sole measure of a project’s environmental benefits, the new evaluation process will also incorporate the expected effects on public health (including traffic fatality rates) and energy use.

Advocates say the new rules will streamline the approval process and open the door to federal funding for a wider variety of transit projects.

“This is big news — leading to more fundable projects, with higher community benefits, approved faster at lower cost, for the benefit of an expanded network of qualified applicants,” said David Burwell, director of the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This guidance is a heads up to communities to sharpen their pencils and get to work on their project proposals.”

U.S. DOT also estimates the new application process will save about $500,000 annually in administrative costs. The new rules are the result of a executive order issued by President Obama in January 2011 that called for streamlining federal agencies; they were not required by the new federal transportation law, MAP-21, which preserved the programs, but did not change the requirements.

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What Is “Mode-Neutral” Funding?

Bus, car, pedicab
Different modes could be funded from the same pot, with allocations based on performance measures.

The beginning of 2008 has seen a flurry of debate -- at least in wonkish circles -- over federal transportation spending. In January, the bi-partisan Surface Transportation Commission released a report two years in the making, "Transportation for Tomorrow," which was promptly badmouthed by U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters for a gas tax hike proposal and partially redacted by the Bush administration to remove a section advocating for public transportation. Just last week the White House proposed paying federal highway obligations by "borrowing" from a fund set aside for transit. With the federal highway bill up for re-authorization next year, huge sums of money are on the line, not to mention the direction of US transportation policy.

One of the new phrases getting tossed around in these discussions is "mode-neutral" funding, which entails allocating money based on pre-determined criteria and cost-benefit analysis, instead of earmarks for roads or transit. Here is FTA Administrator James Simpson (a Bush appointee and former MTA board member), addressing the American Public Transit Association last October:

“Don’t think mode, think people.”  That’s become our motto.

I believe that such mode-neutral thinking is central to a new paradigm in transportation.  I believe that we must stop thinking in terms of mode--no more highways versus transit or bus versus rail. Instead, we MUST think in terms of people and focus on our customers.

And here is syndicated columnist Neal Peirce, endorsing the transportation commission's report:

...the commission faced the necessity of a dramatic rise in the federal gas tax, to 40 cents a gallon, indexed to inflation. And it sought accountability by combining today’s 108 federal transportation funding lines (for transit, highways, railroads, etc.) into 10 goal-oriented programs such as “Congestion Relief,” “Energy Security” and “Saving Lives.” The system would be performance-driven, outcome-based, mode-neutral -- a far call from today’s morass of earmarked transportation projects and billions flowing to states for still more highways.

So would mode-neutral transportation funding benefit a livable streets agenda? The short answer: "It depends."

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