The Transport Politic has the best summary of the changes to the FTA’s New Starts program funding. In analyzing competing projects nationwide, the government:
…will eliminate a policy-making rule that gives projects’ “cost-effectiveness” primacy when choosing how to distribute transit funds. Once the shift has undergone an internal review and been submitted to public comment, the Department of Transportation will give equal weight to livability issues.
Freemark calls out Minneapolis and the Southwest Corridor alignment process as a perfect example of cost-effectiveness uber-alles mentality gone wrong.
Where the cost-effectiveness index goes really wrong is in medium-density cities hoping to cash in on transit as a tool for increasing density and developing a transit-friendly environment. As demonstrated by the Minneapolis example, the index basically forces transit authorities responsible for choosing routes to pick less useful corridors within the inner-city in order to speed commutes from the suburbs. It also requires agencies to reduce spending on lines in order to meet the arbitrary limit imposed by the index, no matter the willingness of local taxpayers to contribute a higher percentage of a project’s construction costs.
Whether the locals in Minneapolis are/were willing to spend more for 3C is, in my mind, an open question, but it does seem clear that a “less useful corridor” was chosen to meet cost-effectiveness guidelines.
What “livability” means is as yet undetermined and will be part of a rule-making process to come. The FTA press release does state livability issues include “economic development opportunities and environmental benefits”. I assume this will mean potential for the project to spur development and the environmental impact from reduced greenhouse gas emissions, among other things.
Freemark says this will be a good change, but won’t solve the real problem: a simple lack of funding for transit projects. Even if a new methodology for ranking projects is devised, their is still a huge gap between deserving projects and federal funds. Streetsblog summarizes Oberstar’s answer: more funding in the next omnibus transportation bill. There is also a good back and forth about whether these changes are good or bad at the National Journal. Transit folks basically say “yahoo!” while skeptics seem to doubt that “livability” measures will be based on rigorous analysis.
It seems to early to judge whether this is a good or bad change without seeing the rules that will guide analysis around livability. The traditional cost-effectiveness measure used a dollar figure. However, this dollar figure was based on travel time savings, and included no external costs. If external environmental impact of route choices and their alternatives can be put in dollar terms, wouldn’t that be a perfectly analytical measure for this new livability category? Economic development potential seems more squishy, but this the same kind of analysis that road project planners have to do when they are considering what property to condemn.