Transit’s Fresh Start to Comprehensive Place Making

Interesting and fun bike stations like this one at Dupont Circle in Washington DC are an example of a transit betterment. (Photo: M. ZImmerman 2012)

Interesting and fun bike stations like this one at Dupont Circle in Washington DC are an example of a transit betterment. (Photo: M. ZImmerman 2012)

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) opened 2013 by releasing a set of game-changing documents for transportation and community development. In its newly published New and Small Starts Final Rule and Proposed Policy Guidance, FTA proposes that smart land use and affordable housing be viewed as key components of good transit projects, and good economic development policy.  

The federal New Starts Transit Program remains the focus of attention for communities and advocates wanting to see increased mobility options. Last year, FTA’s New Starts/Small Starts program provided more than $2 billion for capital projects to help build light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit projects (the total FTA annual budget is approximately $10 billion).

If you don’t enjoy reading dense federal regulation, here are a few of the key highlights FTA will now allow:

  • use a simplified FTA-developed national model, once available, to estimate ridership rather than standard local travel forecasting models hopefully making the process easier for project sponsors and for those wanting to compare across projects;
  • use a series of standard factors in a simple spreadsheet to calculate vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and environmental benefits;
  • a wider set of environmental benefits will be evaluated by FTA recognizing the critical role transit plays in air quality, climate change and public health;
  • no longer require the development of an artificial baseline alternative for calculating the incremental benefits of a proposed new transit line but rather compare the new investment to current service;  and,
  • expand the use of warrants whereby a project may be able to automatically qualify for a
    rating if it meets thresholds established by FTA.

For transit geeks, there are many other proposed changes that make the Final Rule more of a “reset” button than just a continuation of current federal practice. In coming weeks, FTA will be hosting a series of webinars on the new Rule and Policy Guidance. The American Public Transportation Association is also closely tracking both.

Two additional changes have the potential to be significant to local and regional community building efforts.

The first sounds a bit technical on its face: FTA will now allow the cost of project “enrichments” to be excluded. Enrichments are those items that can make a good transit project, a great community project. For instance features needed to improve the walkability or bike access to stations, or efforts to support future development around transit and increase the quality of architectural and landscape design of transit facilities. A growing body of research over the past several years has demonstrated that such “betterments” can have a positive impact on ridership and TOD. However, for the past decade many projects were indirectly penalized for these types of investments even when they had non-federal funding available to pay for them. FTA’s change seeks to correct this unintended disincentive to well-designed transit.

The second proposed change in many ways brings the federal transit program full circle. Originally created in the 1960s as a pilot program of HUD, the Urban Mass Transit Administration (as it was then called) explicitly linked transit service with affordable housing and community development. After the creation of the US Department of Transportation whereby FTA was moved out of HUD, this connection eroded over the next thirty years. The Obama administration is to be applauded for restoring this connection, especially at a time when increased demand for housing near transit is driving up prices.  As Jeff Lubell, Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy  notes in his recent blog on the new FTA rule, “… sometimes, it's the little things that matter…”

The revised Economic Development criteria include evaluation of transit supportive plans and policies, the strength of tools to implement these policies, and the extent to which affordable housing strategies are aligned. FTA’s new Rule also recognizes the different scale by which transit affects and is affected by housing and economic development forces. Consideration is given to local & station-area plans; corridor policies and regional land use impacts. The Center for Transit-Oriented Development has documented, has written extensively on the importance of each of these scales to ensuring that transit policy supports broader community needs in connecting people to jobs, services, and housing as well as providing regional mobility function.

The New Guidance is open for public comment through March 11, 2013, and the Rule takes effect in April. It’s a new year, and a new federal partnership for making transit happen in more communities and ensuring that those investments support environmental, economic and community development goals.