Federal Money for BRT Good for Local Projects, But Future Uncertain

Van_Ness_BRTImage: SFCTA
With the announcement of this year's $1.8 billion in Federal New Starts and Small Starts grants [PDF], two of the Bay Area's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects are set to receive much-needed money to maintain their viability in the face of severe budget cuts. The vote of confidence in the Bay Area's first two BRT projects is an important step, particularly given the proposed changes of criteria at the federal level for these grants, proposals that could make it harder for San Francisco and Oakland to compete with other national projects, say planners.

In San Francisco, the Van Ness BRT project was awarded $15 million in Small Starts funds and in the East Bay, the Berkeley to San Leandro BRT project was awarded $15 million, which goes part of the way toward replenishing the $35 million AC Transit diverted from the project late last year to fill operating budget gaps.

While the diversion of funds from the $234 million East Bay BRT didn't kill the project, receipt of the federal funds was a significant lifeline. AC Transit Interim General Manager Mary King said the grant was a reinforcement to her agency and she hoped for similar grants in the future. "At this point, this is the only way that federal money in large amounts will be flowing to transportation projects," King said in a statement.

The East Bay BRT project is in its environmental review stage and all three cities where it will operate, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro, are deciding the preferred route. Though there arenaysayers who are trying to kill the project, the project proponents have been an important ally to AC Transit, which the agency readily acknowledged.

"Certainly, all of the advocates, who have been so diligent about making the BRT project the best it can be, should be commended for their hard work to ensure that AC Transit stays at the forefront of the federal funding agenda," King said.

At the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA), which has designed and advocated for the Van Ness and Geary BRT projects, the money for Van Ness was seen as vital for keeping the $120 million project on track through environmental review and construction, which is expected to begin by 2011.

"We are delighted with the news. It is important federal recognition that Van Ness BRT has the potential to be a model BRT project for the next generation of livable cities, given its robust ridership,high-quality design and connection to important city development plans," said the TA Deputy Director for Planning Tilly Chang. "This combined with recent funding commitments from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will help bolster the project funding plan and keep project designs moving ahead at the MTA."

Whether or not the Bay Area BRT projects will stay at the forefront of federal funding is a concern, given the changing nature of the criteria for awarding New Starts and Small Starts grants. In San Francisco, for instance, the Van Ness BRT scored well in the cost-effectiveness category, a criteria that will be less significant under the proposed revisions.

Though the news of the proposed changes has generally been well-received by transit advocates around the country, Chang hoped the relatively limited federal funds for innovative transit projects wouldn't be spread too thinly and jeopardize existing projects that are well underway. The changes, said Chang, are "not likely to be favorable to really cost-effective projects like Van Ness and Geary."

Chang added that without a significant boost in overall federal funding for transit in the next Transportation Act, the changes could "make it harder for San Francisco and like cities to compete."

The Berkeley Transportation Commission will discuss a revised version of the Local Preferred Alternative on Thurs., Feb. 4, and the Planning Commission will discuss it on Wednesday, Feb. 10. Both meetings will be held at the North Berkeley Senior Center (MLK Jr. Way & Hearst), beginning at 7 p.m. The Oakland Planning Commission will have a public meeting tonight at 6 pm and on February 17, 6 pm at 250 Frank Ogawa Plaza, Suite 2114.

The next Van Ness BRT Community Advisory Committee meeting is on Tuesday, February 23rd, 5-7 pm, 100 Van Ness Avenue, 26th Floor.