U.S. Goverment Waters Down Objective Criteria for Selecting Transit Projects to Fund.

COST Comments: It is sad, indeed, that U.S. policy has taken this approach regarding mobility and transpiortation. It reflects a clueless understanding of the importance of mobility to quality-of-life. We must continue to pursue mobility approaches which will address the needs if our citizens in a cost-effective way. Below are two brief commentary articles regarding the U.S. Government’s recent announcement that they will reduce the importance of cost effectiveness and performance in its criteria for funding transit train projects

Evidence-Based Public Policy Takes Back Seat in Transportation Policy

by Samuel Staley – January 14, 2010, 9:10am

In what can only be considered a bizarre turn in a presidential administration committed to so-called “evidence based” public policy, the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced it will approve public transit investments based on political popularity and reduce the importance of cost-effectiveness and performance in its approval criteria.

Sound crazy? Here is a excerpt from the official, formal remarks U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood delivered at the keynote luncheon address at the 89th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, perhaps the world’s largest conference of transportation professionals:

“We’re going to free our flagship transit capital program from long-standing requirements that have allowed us only to green-light projects that meet very narrow cost and performance criteria.

“Instead, as we evaluate major transit projects going forward, we’ll consider ALL the factors that help communities reduce their carbon footprint, spur economic activity, and relieve congestion.

“To put it simply: We WILL take livability into account.

“This new approach will help us do a MUCH better job aligning our priorities and values with our investments in transit projects that truly strengthen communities.

“We’ll finally be able to make the case for investing in popular streetcar projects and other transit systems that people want – and that our old ways of doing business didn’t value enough.”

New FTA New Starts Policy Elevates “Livability”

by Robert W. Poole, Jr. in Surface Transportation Innovations No. 75 published by Reason Foundation

For the past several years, a growing number of transportation policy experts have called for rethinking how the federal government funds surface transportation. Reports from the Mary Peters DOT, the Policy & Revenue Commission, the Infrastructure Financing Commission, the Brookings Institution, and the Bipartisan Policy Center have all called for a more “performance-based approach,” as has the Government Accountability Office. All these various experts have argued that one of the big problems with current federal policy is that it largely just doles out money by formula (and by earmark), with little or no consideration of whether that money goes for boondoggles or for sound transportation investments.

One minor exception to this has been the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. For many years, projects seeking funding under New Starts had to demonstrate at least minimal cost-effectiveness, originally by having to show that the taxpayer cost per new transit passenger trip would be less than $24. During the Bush administration, that was changed to a (looser) standard of cost per user benefit. But many transit advocates still protested that having to demonstrate that a new light rail line would produce quantifiable benefits such as passenger travel time saving, reduced emissions, or reduced congestion (at a reasonable cost per unit of benefits) short-changed many projects that they wanted to build—like streetcar lines.

At last week’s Transportation Research Board annual meeting, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced a major policy change for New Starts. Rather than requiring such projects to demonstrate cost-effectiveness in transportation terms, the FTA will now be taking into account “livability” criteria such as “how transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities, and how it makes our communities better places to live.” The policy change has two parts. First, DOT is rescinding the 2005 cost-effectiveness threshold that every New Starts project had to meet (except for those, like BART to San Jose, specifically exempted by Congress). Second, the FTA will initiate a rulemaking to determine how environmental and economic benefits will be used in New Starts project evaluations.

I find this change very troubling. At a time when we face huge shortfalls in surface transportation funding, what we need is more, and more rigorous, benefit/cost analysis, not less. Cooking the books so that “popular streetcar projects and other transit systems that people want” can get access to limited federal funds is a move in precisely the wrong direction—and an ironic one from an administration that came to office promising “evidence-based” policy.

As Alan Pisarski said in recent congressional testimony, “livability” at this juncture is far too vague to be measured. Without a more rigorous definition, “it would become perhaps the perfect federal program: almost anything could be funded under the rubric of livability. With such an amorphous goal, there would be no real measure of success or failure, and funding could go on forever with no real accountability.”

If this is really the direction this administration wants to go, it should stop the pretense that the FTA is a transportation agency, rather than an urban development agency. You may recall that what is now FTA began life as the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and was located in the Department of Housing & Urban Development. If we’re now going to be deciding on light rail and streetcars based not on objective criteria like congestion reduction per dollar spent but on community development criteria, HUD would be a better fit than U.S. DOT. Re-envisioning transit as social infrastructure (like sidewalks and bike paths and city parks) would fit in well with HUD’s role in helping make cities more livable and economically vibrant places. And those projects would properly compete for livability funding with other HUD projects.

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