Over the past month the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) made two announcements, both of which were met with great anticipation by the transportation industry. Yet each may have a greater long-term impact on community development practitioners. In August, the Federal Transit Administration issued final guidance for its Capital Investment Program which funds New Starts and Small Starts transit projects (think subways, streetcars, light rail and bus rapid transit). And last week Secretary Foxx announced the latest round of TIGER grant recipients in 37 states (think big money for big transportation projects). With both of these announcements, USDOT signaled its recognition that these kind of large infrastructure investments can profoundly influence the way communities develop and markets respond.
The TIGER grants provide much needed funding to implement plans by communities to invest in their future. Projects such as Atlanta's Beltline demonstrate the power of local visions, tireless community planning, and a desire to reclaim abandoned urban areas to serve future economic growth and create more transportation options. The Atlanta Beltline Corridor is a 33-mile system of trails, transit and parks circling downtown Atlanta and connecting more than 45 communities throughout the city and region. It has received numerous planning accolades but funding the vision has been a challenge. Shrinking federal resources have required the region to be tireless in its efforts. The $18 million TIGER grant will build 2 miles of trail to provide connections for residents in primarily low-income and minority communities to bus routes, rail stations, schools, parks, and other recreational activities.
But it’s not just big cities that have big visions. This round of TIGER grants is also helping to fund projects developed by universities, small towns and rural communities to help improve quality of life for their residents, and make investments to help them compete in the global marketplace. TIGER funds will be used to support an innovative and catalytic package of technology, streetscaping and transit improvements to connect the small town of Sweetwater with Florida International University (FIU) providing increased access to jobs on the FIU campus and safely linking two portions of campus that are currently disconnected. Similar to Atlanta, Sweetwater had a strong community vision, plan and partnerships in place but securing federal funding took several attempts, especially given that this kind of integrated project doesn’t fall neatly into traditional transportation funding categories.
"Transit Service is Critical to accessing jobs, health services and other everyday necessities for many low-income workers and families, and new transit expansions can enhance personal mobility. In addition, transit investments and other infrastructure projects can contribute to increased economic development and neighborhood change in surrounding areas." -- Michael Spotts, Enterprise Community Partners, August 2013
Big ticket grant announcements get people’s attention. Equally important, but less splashy are the changes FTA has made in how it will evaluate proposed transit projects seeking federal funding. Earlier this year, FTA signaled its intention to reward those communities that not only secured funding for a new transit line, but also undertook the policy and zoning steps necessary to ensure that future development would support transit. Central to this was a new priority on ensuring that households of all income levels, and especially those without a car could live in communities with high-quality transit. The newly issued Final Guidance includes consideration for policies, financial incentives, and regulatory approaches to preserve and expand housing choice along transit corridors. Enterprise Community Partners has prepared an excellent overview of the new guidance, and already transit agencies, local governments and housing authorities are coming together to coordinate better on the investments each makes to help shape communities.