Federally funding for transit projects now to consider “livability”, analysis no longer dominated by cost-effectiveness

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.

3 thoughts on “Federally funding for transit projects now to consider “livability”, analysis no longer dominated by cost-effectiveness

  1. My fear is that less objective “livability” measures will make the New Starts process a beauty/popularity contest. In any beauty contest, don’t bet on the contestant from the Midwest.

    Transit System User Benefits are probably too narrow, but I like the idea of a cost effectiveness floor for billion-dollar federal projects. Maybe instead of tossing it for fluff, we could either:
    1. Increase the components of the denominator to reward denser, better areas, and/or
    2. Increase funding so that CEI scores can be $40 or $50 and still “pass”, not $25 or $30.

    • My hope is that the FTA does come up with an objective formula for measuring indicators of “livability”. I perhaps would have chosen a different word to describe economic and environmental impacts of transit projects, but I, alas, am not in charge.

      However, it doesn’t appear that they are tossing the cost-effectiveness rating, just making it one of many factors that they project is judged by. Projects will now have to receive an overall rating of medium, not just a CEI rating of medium. I share your concerns, but remain optimistic (at least until we see the results).

  2. Pingback: Net Density » Could new FTA “livability” funding rules change Southwest LRT route?

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