“New” ways of evaluating transit benefits?

Federal Transit Administration – Obama Administration Proposes Major Public Transportation Policy Shift to Highlight Livability

A quote:

“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” said Secretary LaHood. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”

I’m just going to say it: I think this is not good news for public transit. The Transport Politic is more hopeful.

Every single transit grant proposal I have reviewed or written in the last 18 years (yes, I’m old, shut up) of being in this business has already been justified through major claims about environmental benefits, usually inflated, and economic development benefits, usually inflated, through new jobs. It doesn’t even really bother me (that much) that costs and benefits are fudged. If everybody fudges numbers and claims and we all know numbers and claims are fudged, it’s bad but it’s not that bad. In the culture of fudging, there are rules, too.


Given that we’ve had these rationales for transit for about 50 years, I doubt very much that LaHood’s move will mean much difference at all in the actual Federal budgetary allocations between highways and transit. They’d still have to get higher funding for transit past a legislative body disproportionately influenced by rural interests.

Instead, this move, if it changes anything, may preclude people from doing ex ante analyses of ridership benefits–which, whatever, people can still count. And it may prioritize projects that include a lot of joint station-area development. Again, however, people already do that; we live in a world where everybody wants urban design and street development but where nobody wants to pay for them.

Instead, I think LaHood’s rationales have the potential to siphon transit money away from high-ridership locations and projects (which can demonstrate higher benefits without smoke and mirrors, and whose high ridership mean that station-area improvements benefit more people) in favor of projects in small cities that have no real environmental problems and that aren’t growing much or serving many passengers–all because a nimble grant writer managed to be convincing that a joint development TOD in places like Buffalo would make its population-leaking downtown “livable.”)

Again, I have nothing against weighing in urban benefits. But I do have something against standards that make it even easier than it is in the political realm to spread already scarce transit money to projects that are not likely to yield a reasonable body of riders. Riders! Remember them? You don’t get environmental benefits from transit unless it actually gets riders, unless you value the station-area improvements no matter how few riders we serve. Is that what they are saying here? If so, how much of the bill for streetscape upgrades are property owners and city boosters going to try to saddle Federal transit proposals with?

I know. I am no fun. My students tell me this every day.

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