National Journal Online has a good roundup of opinion-leader reactions to the new US DOT guidelines for funding of "New Starts" transit projects, the main vehicle for new transit infrastructure. The guidelines replace Bush administration criteria based on travel time changes with broader criteria that include "livability" outcomes. I first wrote about this here, and got a surprising number of comments from transit advocates who were not sure it was good news.
On the other hand, it's a bit disappointing to see concerns about measurability coming only from organizations that are cold to transit and urbanism in general, such as the Reason Foundation and the American Highway Users Alliance. Reason's Bob Poole writes, not unreasonably:
This announcement is also in sharp contrast to the crippling “cost-benefit” guidelines put in place under the previous administration. While evaluating the costs and benefits of a transit project is sensible in theory, in practice it can only work if all benefits are eligible for consideration. Under the old guidelines, real community benefits like cleaner air, job growth and proximity to retail and recreation were never considered. Highway projects, of course, never were subjected to anything like the cost-benefit analysis applied to transit projects.
As Alan Pisarski said in recent congressional testimony, “livability” at this juncture is far too vague to be measured. Without a more rigorous definition, “it would become perhaps the perfect federal program: almost anything could be funded under the rubric of livability. With such an amorphous goal, there would be no real measure of success or failure, and funding could go on forever with no real accountability.”
Why do such concerns come mainly from people who don't share the program's urbanist objectives? Shouldn't people who want the program to succeed care about accountability and measurement of outcomes, too?
I share the goals of livable cities as passionately as anyone, but many wonderful goals make poor funding criteria, usually because they are impossible to measure. How is FTA supposed to measure the "livability" outcomes of a project? If the Portland Streetcar, and the related redevelopment of the Pearl District, are supposed to be our model of success, then we're talking about funding transit projects based on their urban development impacts. How do you count these before anything has been built? Will applicants be claiming urban development impacts for their projects based on signed promises from developers, or more from general levels of developer interest? If the latter, how do you keep this from becoming a pure popularity contest that ultimately boils down to the political influence of the applicant city's members of Congress? And how do you keep that from looking like "pork"?
The FTA assures us they're thinking about it:
FTA will soon put out a rulemaking for public comment that will propose ideas for better measuring and quantifying the benefits provided by transit projects including environmental, economic development, congestion relief, and other social benefits.
FTA will propose a revised cost-effectiveness calculation that more fully takes into account this wider range of benefits.
FTA encourages active participation by the transit industry on this rulemaking and looks forward to hearing input from our grantees and stakeholders.
I look forward to the rulemaking process, which will be a much clearer signal about whether this is good news. This is a critical program for public transit in the US, and the devil is in the details.