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Why do such concerns come mainly from people who don't share the program's urbanist objectives?

Because urbanists too often rely on subjective, "emotional" measures, which these guidelines too much resemble. Say what you will about Reason's "cold" stance toward urbanism, I think their emphasis on results is fair. Where they go wrong is in assuming that (say) the gas tax comes anywhere close enough to covering the true cost of driving. If the free market were driving all forms of transportation, we wouldn't be having these arguments. We wouldn't have to, because then everyone would be paying the true cost.

Alex B.

I do think urbanists will embrace quantitative numbers and analysis, just so long as it's clear what the limits of those numbers are. That's the main problem with the concept of the CEI, as applied recently - the very idea that one set of numbers could make these kinds of complex decisions.

It's unfair to call these qualitative characteristics 'emotional' measures.

I haven't seen any urbanists shy away from measurement or evaluation - only ones asking for considering of quantitative and qualitative measures.

Alon Levy

Robert Poole... that's the guy who thinks taking transit is like a circuit-switched phone network. Remind me why he has a job again talking about, well, anything?

The Overhead Wire

I have to quibble a little bit with the characterization of this as a replacement of Bush criteria with other goals. Thus far, before any new measurement is created, all this new move does is take us back to before 2005. In 2005 all the Bush administration did was pick out the CE measure and say that was it. There might have been a few changes like measuring against an enhanced baseline project rather than no build but they weren't going to look at anything else unless you had a medium. Before that you had projects like Charlotte, Minneapolis, and the Orange Line BRT receiving medium low ratings in cost effectiveness, but their overall rating was medium because of other measures such as land use etc.

Now it is possible that you can argue that the measurements of land use were arbitrary, which they certainly were in some instances (some cities had different ratings for having the exact same parking and density plans downtown) but for the most part it worked out as a way to allow projects that might have missed the CE by just a bit to move forward. Many of those projects like the ones listed above were seen as overwhelming successes, perhaps because of the underwhelming modeling numbers that were blown out of the water on day one of operation. Had the modeling been right, they would have had medium CE ratings.

What I'm trying to say is that all of this is a pretty inexact science. The requirement for a CE rating of medium was wrong just as the models are generally wrong because they are based on highway modeling. From a framing perspective, we also have to start thinking to ourselves why highways are allowed to be built empty to serve future demand while rail or bus lines that aren't hitting their ridership targets are seen as waste. The only way you're going to fix a low ridership line is allow the right amount of development. There's never going to be a perfect argument for any system so long as there is always a true on some level argument from the other side.

Anyways, this was kind of a ramble, but I think to a certain extent the highway users and reason people have no idea what they are arguing for other than ideology. Sure we have our own, but at some point that's all we have to go on since the numbers no matter how mathematically sound are still predicting the behavior of unpredictable humans.


You didn't quote the most important passage from the Corless article, one which validates my view of this change.

"According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, 80 cities could apply for investment in nascent streetcar systems, an underutilized form of transit that yields palpable livability perks."

If you read the WSJ article itself (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704675104575001560050211080.html), it should be even more clear that this rule change is pretty much a streetcar thing. Furthermore, the main beneficiary is likely to be United Streetcar, the Oregon company that manufactures the Portland streetcars. I can testify that the streetcars this company makes are awful, shoddy things and are manifestly inferior to European technology. But then we must "buy American", musn't we?

This new rule is stupid. The only projects that benefit from it are those that confer no mobility benefits, and that means streetcars. This is a case of crafting a rule to effect a desired outcome, and the desired outcome in this case is streetcars.


Right now, I'm slightly more optimistic than I was earlier. Fingers crossed, I thinking that LaHood and Rogoff simply used the term "livability" to refer to all the non-cost-effective criteria under Project Justification. It's possible that most of the new changes may simply reflect a change of CEI from 50% to 20% and a nullification of the (illegal?) requirement that a lower than "medium" CEI rating cause the entire Project Justification to fall into the "not recommended" category.

But, I broadly agree with Pantheon, streetcars are usually cosmetic gimmicks.


A lot depends on where the streetcar runs.

A single-car mixed traffic streetcar like the Portland Streetcar--yeah, it's not much better than a bus from a mobility point of view. They do appeal to certain demographics, and as far as TriMet's operational budget--the transit agency only contributes the cost of an equivalent bus service. The rest comes from various City sources (parking revenue, a Local Improvement District); so the net impact on TriMet's operations is probably nil.

"Rapid streetcar"--streetcar vehicles running in an exclusive ROW, and often with multiple car consists--can compete with LRT in certain applications. Ignoring the politics and a few technical issues (stop spacing and signalling), the Yellow Line could probably be replaced with streetcars with no noticeable drop in service. Given that much of the Yellow runs in exclusive lanes that used to be automobile lanes (on Interstate Avenue), designing it for streetcar instead of LRT would have lowered construction costs. Given the plans to extend the Yellow to Vancouver WA, LRT may well still have been the correct choice.


A "rapid streetcar" doesn't need this rule change to get federal funding, as it would presumably reduce commute times. Only the crappy ones need the new rule.


Yeah, I just don't see how streetcars should get an advantage with the putative new rules other than point source particulate matter and such. If they slow down auto traffic around it too much, it would make pollution worse.


The old rule had the affect of making ANY rail project difficult, unless done on the cheap. It isn't about streetcars, really.


The old rule was based on how much a project shortened commute times compared to its cost. If the cost requirements were too stringent they can be changed, or eliminated entirely. Here is a useful quote from Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation in the article Jarrett linked to.

"For many years, projects seeking funding under New Starts had to demonstrate at least minimal cost-effectiveness, originally by having to show that the taxpayer cost per new transit passenger trip would be less than $24. During the Bush administration, that was changed to a (looser) standard of cost per user benefit. But many transit advocates still protested that having to demonstrate that a new light rail line would produce quantifiable benefits such as passenger travel time saving, reduced emissions, or reduced congestion (at a reasonable cost per unit of benefits) short-changed many projects that they wanted to build—like streetcar lines."

If I wanted to change the rule to fund top-notch rail projects, I would either raise the $24 target to $100, or $200, or I would change the ratio of cost to user benefit. But that isn't what they are doing. LaHood said "we'll consider all the factors that help communities reduce their carbon footprint, spur economic activity and relieve congestion. To put it simply, we will take livability into account."

What concerns me most is that this administration believes the role of transit is to "spur economic activity". Transit advocates should question that rationale and its ramifications for public transit in America. First, that is the role of HUD, not DOT, as Poole points out. Second, there is only one transportation mode whose primary goal is to spur economic activity. And we all know what that is.

Ed O

One of the roles of transit is definitely to spur economic activity in urban areas - as well as to move people, promote more efficient travel and landuse patterns, enhance the population's access to jobs and education, reduce congestion, and enable more sustainable living. Seeing transit's role as being merely to relieve peak hour traffic congestion on nearby freeways is a peculiarly US perspective - which retains cars and needs of car users as the primary focus of transportation decision making.

I can't see the point of designing transit as an alternative for peak hour drivers, while a city remains structured around the needs of cars. You're never going to generate the type of 24/7 demand necessary to justify the high frequencies everyone wants - and subsequently find it harder to attract riders and new development around the lines.

Sizable proportions of people living in those top 50 low-car cities listed in the earlier posting wouldn't be worrying too much about the congestion-easing benefits of transit projects, but rather the service quality and new travel opportunities that would directly improve their quality of life. Eg in the less wealthy areas, significant improvements in access to jobs and education.

The integration of landuse and transport is essential in developing efficient, functioning and sustainable urban systems - and any new transit infrastructure can't be considered without its relationships to surrounding lands, current and future populations, and development potential. As I mentioned earlier under another posting, any new transit project seeking funding should be accompanied with commitments for significant upzonings of land along the corridor to enable and encourage the sort of higher density, walkable centres and neighbourhoods necessary to support the infrastructure investment. Note that I'm talking about town centres, and not about diverting lines via individual development sites.

To ensure the success of major transit infrastructure in the age of the car, strict landuse and development controls limiting sprawl, protecting the downtown and facilitating density and urban consolidation are necessary. If politically this means that eg rail won't be built - then buses and street based BRT would be the more appropriate solutions for those cities until they are ready to commit - or otherwise they could fund the rail themselves.


Ed O, the previous Project Justification criteria weren't concerned specifically with peak hour traffic--it was time saved at all hours.

Also, as mentioned before, many areas that are not growing, or are losing population still justify transit investments to improve mobility. Your argument about upzoning totally ignores the reality that some just won't get the growth at all, or not at time soon at least. I'm talking about Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philly. All those cities should get more, faster transit, but they're not growing. Are you saying that just upzoning, even though the growth won't come is the way to go?

I see putting development as too large a criterion only leads to corruption. Because developing a good transit system is not necessarily congruent with maximizing development. What might be VERY good for one development, might undercut the whole transit service. Whereas, what might be very good for patrons and the region, might not necessarily benefit certain "key" parcels owned by influential property owners. We've had to deal with this crap in my home town with recent transit planning.

If you focus too much on new developement, you've put in a severe bias against constructing a holistic transit system. Not only from property favoritism, but the high-growth west coast will trounce the Rust Belt--the area in need of a revitalized infrastructure the most.

As I mentioned in the original post about this, I think the CEI was fundementally a good construct. But that it needed several modifications and adjustments to be more valid. Raising the breakpoints, as Pantheon suggested above, was one of them.


Ed O,

I agree that the old rule was not perfect. You make a good point when you say that the congestion reduction criteria represents a US perspective, and is not the best way of judging transit projects.

It is also possible that the new criteria could justify high-speed LRT and BRT projects that may have been deemed too pricey under the old rule. But I fear that the immediate consequences of this rule change will not be to fund the transit systems of our dreams, but rather a bunch of crappy streetcar lines. And I believe that the wording of the new rule was deliberately crafted by the administration to achieve this. Mixed-traffic streetcars are the only mode of transit that require such a vague test, because it is inconceivable that they could receive funding under any standard of objective criteria.

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