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Why is it so hard to build a train?

I received a newsletter in the mail recently about the Purple Line, a light rail line in the planning process in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Like hundreds of other public transit projects across the country, the rail line is in the "planning" stages and nobody can really say exactly when it will be constructed or begin operations.

The cause is simple: too little funds and a lack of political support both locally and from the federal government. Quite simply, we get more roads because our policies are structured to spend more money on them, and they're more popular with elected officials. Although the specific cause of the lack of transit investment is simple enough, its effect on the way transit systems are planned and perceived by the public is far from simple. The lack of funds has added complexity length to an already complex and lengthy process. As a result, project supporters and detractors alike are alienated from the planning, forced to navigate a morass of acronyms, plans, and steps.

The problem lies in the fact that since there is some money available, local supporters of the roughly 400 planned projects (with an estimated total cost of $248 billion) pretend they've got a shot at it. Time and again local boosters tell the media they'll just submit for federal funds and break ground after they complete the required paperwork. As we'll see, this couldn't be farther from the truth.

Robert Goodspeed | @rgoodspeed | May 11, 2009, 10am PDT
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I received a newsletter in the mail recently about the Purple Line, a light rail line in the planning process in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Like hundreds of other public transit projects across the country, the rail line is in the "planning" stages and nobody can really say exactly when it will be constructed or begin operations.

The cause is simple: too little funds and a lack of political support both locally and from the federal government. Quite simply, we get more roads because our policies are structured to spend more money on them, and they're more popular with elected officials. Although the specific cause of the lack of transit investment is simple enough, its effect on the way transit systems are planned and perceived by the public is far from simple. The lack of funds has added complexity length to an already complex and lengthy process. As a result, project supporters and detractors alike are alienated from the planning, forced to navigate a morass of acronyms, plans, and steps.

The problem lies in the fact that since there is some money available, local supporters of the roughly 400 planned projects (with an estimated total cost of $248 billion) pretend they've got a shot at it. Time and again local boosters tell the media they'll just submit for federal funds and break ground after they complete the required paperwork. As we'll see, this couldn't be farther from the truth.

In reality, the federal government only spends about $1.6 billion each year on new transit systems. Instead of picking a few winners and telling the rest to go away, hundreds languish at various steps in the approval process. An already complex process is slowed even further when local project supporters have to fight to get enough money to complete the lengthy studies required to even compete for federal funds. And the public at large have a poor understanding of the overall process, possibly assuming the slow progress must be the result of NIMBYism, the complex process itself, or a lack of popular support.

This subtle effect on the political position of transit must be addressed, particularly if transit supporters want to increase funds available and reform the planning process. Let's take a look at how it works, starting with a summary of what that Purpose Line newsletter described.

The Transit Planning Process

The newsletter was sent to announce the completion of the comment period on the Alternatives Analysis/Draft Environmental Impact Statement (AA/DEIS), required by the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) New Starts Program Criteria, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). I eagerly looked up the "What's Next" section: the designation of the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the route and "technology" (aka, buses on dedicated lanes or trains). After that, the Preliminary Engineering and the Final Environmental Impact Statement (PE/FEIS) would be completed. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), like most project sponsors, will be seeking funding from the federal government to help pay for the project.

To do that, they'll submit the documents to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which administers the only federal program to pay for new fix route transit systems, the New Starts program. Under the last surface transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU - I won't define that acronym), they get $1.5-2 billion to allocate each years, funds that originally come mostly from the gas tax. After the MTA submits the documents to the FTA, it will seek a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA). To get that it must obtain from the FTA a Record of Decision (ROD) or Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) from the FTA, and also complete the PE/FEIS.

The FTA uses an elaborate set of criteria to decide which projects to fund. When I asked my former classmate and transportation wonk Matt Johnson to summarize the New Starts criteria for me last year, he sent me a 4,563 word email describing the seven criteria (not including sub-criteria) used to evaluate projects. Unfortunately the criteria are changed slightly each year so his email is now obsolete. The criteria range from the vaguely objective to the totally subjective (last year's FTA report included one called "Making the Case") Of course, this doesn't even mention the Before and After Study required by all projects seeking an FFGA.

All of this assumes the project has successfully navigated the local planning process for the entire transportation system. The local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) must put the project in its 20-year regional transportation plan (RTP). After it goes into the RTP, the planning work must be included in the annual Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP) and the the project must make it into the annual Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). The MPOs submit their local TIPs to the state who creates a Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). All these plans are often subject to nasty back-room politics and must be approved by the federal government.

Finally, all this doesn't actually guarantee the project will get funding. In fact, the FTA cites six criteria when used in creating its annual funding allocation (for projects with existing funding agreements!), including process criteria established by Sections 5309(d) and 5309(e) and Executive Order 12893. The irony of all of this is at the end, the federal government will only pay about 60% of the total cost (versus 80% or so for highways). Some high profile projects ask for much less - just 30%.

I should note I'm not totally sure I understand the entire process myself, after reading hundreds of pages about transportation policy, scouring government websites for years, and working in the urban planning profession. In fact, I'm not sure many people truly understand the process inside and out, except the bureaucrats that create and follow it, and transportation consultants. And that's a problem.

Transit Planning in Perspective

Am I reading too much into this complexity -- is it perhaps inevitable in the modern world? After all, it hasn't stopped a number of cities from participating in New Starts successfully, and in fact the country is experiencing a light rail renaissance with major investments from Charlotte to Seattle. What's needed isn't necessarily the reduction of regulation, but an evaluation of how the entire system works.

The mind-numbing complexity of public transit planning affects public perception and engagement. Citizens -- angry, supportive, or just plain curious -- show up at meetings without a good understanding of where the project falls. Projects tend to idle in extremely drawn out planning process. And nobody has a good understanding of the biggest reasons, the simple lack of funds and political will.

What about the stimulus - what's that supposed to release lots of new funds for transportation infrastructure? Recently Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced only $742.5 million would go to New Starts projects that already had full funding agreements, and was careful to note in the press release "The ARRA grants announced today do not increase the federal commitment to the projects, but expedite funds committed under the agreement between the federal government and the transit agencies." From a funding perspective, as I wrote recently on the National Journal, "the highway largesse and transit frugality must change: we must be more strategic (fewer earmarks, to start) with road funds and less stingy with worthy transit systems."

From a planning perspective, there should be an examination of the so-called 3C process ("continuing, cooperative and comprehensive"). The metropolitan planning context I briefly described above dates largely from the 1970s. Although there is some discussion about how to reform from a federal perspective, the structure and funcitons of the MPO must be examined. California is one state looking at how to reform the process, linking transportation more closely with land use and global warming issues at the metropolitan scale, but I'm not convinced they've struck on a model that's particularly effective.

It seems what may be needed after discussing all of this is a little perspective. How do countries with better public transit networks plan them? Are there better approaches, or is our system as good as it could be?

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