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Posts from the "Federal Transit Administration" Category

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Supervisor Farrell Delays SFCTA Approval of Van Ness BRT Design

A crucial step in advancing the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project was delayed for a month today after Supervisor Mark Farrell, a member of the SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) Plans and Programs Committee, complained that he wasn’t comfortable voting on the latest design proposal which he said he “hasn’t been briefed on.”

Supervisor Mark Farrell. Photo: Jennifer Low/Flickr

The committee was expected to approve recommendation of the proposal today, sending it to the full board for a vote next Tuesday. However, Farrell said that it was “absolutely inappropriate” for him vote on it today without feeling adequately informed, and that he still wouldn’t be ready in a week. Although the proposal received unanimous approval from the SFMTA Board of Directors today, the SFCTA committee decided to postpone its vote until its next meeting, in one month.

Staying updated on the project, said Farrell, “is a responsibility of mine, for sure, but it’s also a responsibility of the TA [staff].”

“In my opinion, it is very appropriate and, I think, necessary for all the supervisors and commissioners who get affected by this in their districts to be fully briefed on this before we’re asked to vote on any portion of this, even if it might be non-binding,” he said.

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The Consequences of Political Foot-Dragging

If SAFETEA-LU isn't extended on time, over 5,000 transit grants could be at risk. Source: FTA

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is meeting tomorrow to discuss a four-month extension to the current transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU. The map above is from a short but powerful document the Federal Transit Administration put out this week explaining “The Impacts of Failing to Extend Surface Transportation Funding” [PDF]. How much transit work would grind to a halt in your state without an extension?

In addition to the 5,600 transit grants, covering both capital projects and operations, a failure to extend SAFETEA-LU on time would jeopardize 134,936 active highway projects and 847,294 jobs, according to the FTA.


    
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Feds Announce Winners of $293 Million in Transit Grants

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FTA chief Peter Rogoff announced the winners of $293 million in competitive grants for bus and streetcar projects today. The biggest chunks of funding will help build streetcar projects in Cincinnati, Charlotte, Fort Worth, and St. Louis, as well as rapid bus corridors in New York and Chicago. All told, the funding will be distributed among 53 projects, chosen from more than 300 applicants.

cincy_streetcar.jpgImage: Cincinnati Enquirer
While streetcar projects got the largest individual grants, most of the funding will go toward bus projects, including a number of grants for smaller cities to build, expand, or improve stations like Des Moines's Multi-Modal Transit Hub. Several bus projects have an information component, promising to make service more predictable and convenient by giving riders a clear sense of when buses will arrive.

Also on the list is Boston's regional bike-share network, slated to receive $3 million to help build more than 500 public bicycle stations. The bike-share project made the cut because of its potential to expand the reach and accessibility of the bus and rail system. Boston's bike-share launch recently got pushed back to 2011, but at that scale, it would be, by far, the largest system in the country.

Here's a sample of the major projects that got a boost:

  • Cincinnati will receive $25 million to help build a six-mile streetcar route, with an eye toward spurring mixed-use development downtown. The city planning commission recently took the enlightened step of reducing parking requirements along the future streetcar route.
  • Chicago received support for a pair of rapid bus projects: $11 million for the Jeffery BRT corridor, which will improve service to major job center on a route with poor access to trains, and $25 million for a two-mile, east-west bus priority street serving several routes downtown.
  • New York City's 34th Street busway got an $18 million grant. Streetsblog NYC readers have been following this project for a couple of years. NYCDOT recently announced its intention to make 34th Street the first physically separated busway in the city.
  • One of the surprise winners was Fort Worth, which received about $25 million for a 2.5-mile one-way streetcar loop, intended to serve as the hub in a future network. Streetsblog Network member Fort Worthology called the grant "incredible and extremely positive news" for the larger streetcar project.

You can see the complete list of projects here.

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Obama Aide Defends Transit Safety Plan as Different from Rail Rules

Federal Transit Administration (FTA) chief Peter Rogoff today mounted a defense of the White House's transit safety plan, assuring some skeptical members of Congress that he does not want to "replicate" inter-city rail safety rules that have taken flak for impeding the development of viable U.S. train networks.

reagan_metro_station.jpgAs of last year, D.C.'s Metro had less than one full-time employee working on its safety panel. (Photo: VisitingDC.com)
Referencing the safety struggles of Washington D.C.'s Metro transit system, where oversight was relegated to an under-funded, effectively inactive committee before a series of rail accidents last year, Rogoff acknowledged that previous federal regulators were "complicit in wrongdoing" to some degree.

"[W]e engaged in at least helping the transit industry develop voluntary [safety] standards," Rogoff told the House oversight committee. "As a federal agency, I feel it's our obligation to identify what the safe practices [are]. The only way we can ensure there will be safe practices is to have mandatory standards."

The Obama administration's transit safety proposal [PDF] would seek to impose such mandatory standards for transit safety, requiring local agencies to meet a minimum threshold of compliance or be subject to federal monitoring. The president's budget for fiscal year 2011 would set aside about $30 million to help transit agencies pay for any safety upgrades required by the new federal oversight.

"It is not our goal to replicate the voluminous [Federal Rail Administration] rulebook for transit systems," Rogoff told lawmakers. The FRA's slate of safety standards have required Amtrak's Acela trains to stop short of maximum speeds and Caltrain commuter rail to delay introduction of lighter-weight cars, coming under fire from rail advocates.

But lawmakers' openness to debating the White House safety plan does not mean the FTA can count on passage this year. Leaders of the House transportation committee have indicated they do not aim to take up the transit safety bill as a free-standing measure, instead leaving the issue to the next six-year federal infrastructure bill -- which may not come to a final vote until next spring at the earliest.

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Big Transit News: Bush-Era Rule Tossed, Enviro Benefits on the Table

Transportation reformers and members of Congress have long clamored for changes
to the federal government’s major transit grant program, otherwise
known as "New Starts," and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood answered today with an announcement of sweeping changes in the works.

610x.jpgLaHood made his announcement today at the Transportation Research Board conference. (Photo: AP)

The first move: LaHood’s DOT will rescind a 2005 rule
that elevated "cost-effectiveness" above all other criteria used to
determine whether a local transit project can receive federal funds.
Cost remains a factor in the "New Starts" process, but is no longer
given more weight than factors such as congestion relief.

House
transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and Rep. Pete
DeFazio (D-OR), his top lieutenant, quickly issued a statement hailing
the reversal of the Bush-era mandate, which is blamed for slowing down
transit expansions in several major cities.

"Now we need increased investment dollars to follow this
reform, so that we can move forward with transit projects that
relieve congestion, reduce emissions, increase our energy
independence, and promote more livable communities across the
country,” Oberstar said in a statement.  “We must all continue to work
together toward a long-term authorization bill that makes transit
options available to more people."

The
second of the Obama administration’s moves: Environmental and economic
benefits will become official factors in evaluating "New Starts"
proposals. This change requires a rulemaking by the Federal Transit
Administration (FTA), which typically includes a period of public
comment, so will not take effect immediately.

In announcing
this latter shift, LaHood and FTA chief Peter Rogoff emphasized the
need to look at the community-building benefits of transit.

"To
put it simply: We will take livability into account," LaHood said today. "This
new approach will help us do a much better job aligning our priorities
and values with our investments in transit projects that truly strengthen
communities. We’ll
finally be able to make the case for investing in popular streetcar
projects and other transit systems that people want
– and that our old ways of doing business didn’t value enough."

Late Update:
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) weighed in with a statement connecting
today’s news to the White House’s broader sustainable communities push:

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State DOTs: We Back National Transport Goals — If We Get to Write Them

Congressional efforts to set national goals for the American transportation system are stalled for now, but the U.S. DOT said today that it is preparing for an eventual transition to a world where performance targets are the norm for transit, roads, bridges, and ports.

interstate_traffic.jpg(Photo: UVA)
"National goals should be set by U.S. DOT in collaboration with states and stakeholders," Federal Highway Administration executive director Jeffrey Paniatti said yesterday during a session of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) conference.

But how will Washington measure progress on transportation metrics such as safety, pollution reduction, and efficiency in states that are, as Paniatti put it gently, "starting from different places"?

Pete Rahn, the chief of Missouri's state DOT and past president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), had a simple answer: States should be in charge of the process.

"We believe there should be a state-driven performance management approach," Rahn told TRB attendees, in which "states establish targets which they can deliver given their unique circumstances."

At AASHTO, he added, "we don't envision a process in which the Secretary of the U.S. DOT will dole out a share of a target to each state ... U.S. DOT would establish targets and we'd certainly hope that the total cumulative balance of state targets would equal the national [goal]."

And if state-written targets don't meet national performance standards? "[T]hat means the national target is not realistic," Rahn said.

AASHTO's lack of interest in meeting transportation goals that are not written within their ranks could create a major headache for the Obama administration, should it pursue broader infrastructure reform that would hold state DOTs accountable for their spending.

Letting states craft performance measures internally would risk rigging the system to ensure that DOTs always meet their targets -- but if the federal government wanted to effect broader change on a state or regional level, such as lower emissions or fewer pedestrian deaths, where would it get leverage?

Both Paniatti and Rahn ruled out any attempt to threaten a loss of federal transportation funding if goals were not met, a tactic successfully used in the 1980s to set the national speed limit at 55 miles per hour.

In fact, Rahn fondly recalled his past work at a state DOT that successfully gamed the speed-limit system. "We chose to put our speed sensors in really sharp corners," he told the TRB audience, drawing sporadic chuckles. "That's why [the push for national transportation targets] has to be a project we work on together."

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White House Unveils Transit Safety Bill to Cautious Praise on the Hill

Lawmakers on the House transportation committee today greeted details of the Obama administration’s transit safety plan
with approval, but some sounded skeptical notes about the costs of
state compliance with new federal rules even as transit agencies cope
with billions of dollars in maintenance and repair backlogs.

reagan_metro_station.jpgWashington D.C.’s transit safety oversight agency has less than 1 full-time employee. (Photo: VisitingDC.com)

Rep.
Pete DeFazio (D-OR), chairman of the committee’s transit panel, opened
today’s hearing by citing Federal Transit Administration (FTA) data
that showed nearly 40 percent of state transit safety overseers lacking
the authority to inspect rail tracks.

"There is no substitute for physical inspection of rail lines," DeFazio said. "My concern is if
the FTA is prohibited from inspecting rail transit systems and 40 percent of
states aren’t allowed to perform inspections, then who is ensuring
that these systems are safe?"

Transport
committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) added FTA numbers of his own,
noting that only 15 percent of state safety overseers are allowed to
fine transit agencies that are found to be violating safety standards.

"That’s a pretty dismal record," he said. "Anyone who says the federal government shouldn’t be engaged
here because states are doing such a great job, take a look at these numbers."

Yet
both senior Democrats noted the tension between asking the 26 state
transit safety groups currently in operation to meet minimum training
and oversight standards — as the White House’s proposed legislation
envisions — while the nation’s biggest transit agencies cope with
unmet equipment repair needs that are estimated at upwards of $50 billion.

The transit safety legislation [PDF],
which was transmitted to congressional leaders yesterday, would allow
states to keep their current transit oversight structure as long as
federal regulators find that it meets a minimum safety threshold.
States would receive federal aid to defray the costs of hiring and
training safety inspectors, as well as achieving financial independence
from the transit agencies they monitor.

"We are trying to
give the states every tool we have" to create a nationwide floor for
transit safety, FTA chief Peter Rogoff told lawmakers today. "We also
reserve the right to find the system they have inadequate."

The
FTA was prohibited from setting national transit safety under a 1965
law that was modified in 1991, when Congress created an oversight
system that allowed flexible state standards for light rail and
subways. Some state groups, such as those in New York and
Massachusetts, have maintained independent and active oversight, but
other transit safety entities — Washington D.C.’s, most notably — have been exposed as toothless.

During
today’s hearing, several transportation committee members pressed
Rogoff about the new legislation’s price tag and its merit for state
transit safety groups that are already considered strong overseers.

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Obama Administration’s Transit Safety Rules to Eventually Apply to Buses

The Obama administration’s proposal
for a new federal role in transit safety oversight would eventually
apply to buses, although the first round of rules would be directed at
subways and light rail, according to the U.S. DOT.

p124901_Miami_Miami_Dade_County_Transit.jpgTransit buses, such as this Miami model, are expected to be part of the new federal safety plan. (Photo: IgoUgo.com)

The
new transit safety plan, including a request for Federal Transit
Administration (FTA) authority to regulate buses, will be sent to
Congress in the coming weeks for translation into legislative form. The
plan will also receive a House hearing on December 8.

"The
administration expects its early efforts, however, to be focused on
addressing rail transit safety," the DOT wrote in a statement on the
proposed legislation, tentatively titled the Public Transportation
Safety Program Act.

The DOT’s statement depicted the motivation for its move as broader than the fatal June collision
of two trains on Washington D.C.’s Metrorail network. A transit safety
task force headed by deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari also
reviewed the July crash on San Francisco’s Muni system, a crash on Boston’s light rail in May, and a 2006 derailment on a below-ground stretch of Chicago’s transit network.

"DOT
is also seeing some warning signs regarding increased collision rates,
derailment rates, and worker fatalities that give us cause for
concern," the agency stated.

Citing past criticism
of the federal approach to regulating inter-city passenger rail,
transit advocates have raised concerns that local transit authorities’
already tight budgets could be strained even further by the cost of complying with new FTA rules — prompting service cuts and fare increases.

One
detail that may answer some questions about the federal process:
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood plans to appoint an advisory
committee — with local transit agencies likely represented — to
counsel Washington on the ins and outs of crafting new transit safety
rules, according to the DOT.

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Feds Propose to Expand Opportunities for Biking and Walking to Transit

When it comes to infrastructure improvements that encourage more people
to walk or bicycle to transit stations, how long will commuters be
willing to travel? The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has
officially answered that question, proposing a significant expansion of
the rules governing how close bike-ped projects should be to transit in
order to receive government funding.

6a00e551eea4f588340120a5b6138d970b_800wi.jpgThe BikeStation in Washington D.C., which provides parking and services for bicyclists who use transit. (Photo: U.S. DOT)

The FTA’s new rules,
released for public comment on Friday, replace the previous definition
of the so-called "structural envelope" surrounding a transit station.

In
the past, regulators had tended to use 1,500 feet as the distance which
"most people can be expected to safely and conveniently walk to use the
transit service." But the Obama administration, stating plainly that
the current radius is "too short," has proposed expanding it to a
half-mile for pedestrian improvements and three miles for bicycle
projects.

In its explanation of the new proposal, the FTA wrote:

The most successful and useful public
transportation systems have safe and convenient pedestrian access and
provide comfortable waiting areas, all of which encourage greater
use.

Distances beyond the walkshed of public transportation stops and
stations may in fact be within the range of a short bicycle trip.
Providing secure parking and other amenities for bicycles and cyclists
at public transportation stops or stations can be less expensive than
providing parking for automobiles.

The proposed regulation also codifies a U.S. DOT definition of "livability" that Streetsblog Capitol Hill took note of
when it was first mentioned by Transportation Secretary LaHood: "If
people don’t want an automobile, they don’t have to have one."

Public comments on the FTA’s proposal can be filed here.

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U.S. DOT to Stop Rewarding Transit Projects That Use Private Contracts

The Obama administration will reverse a Bush-era policy that gave
proposed transit projects a leg up in the chase for federal money if
their operations and maintenance were to be contracted out privately,
according to a regulation finalized today.

NA_AY921_TRANSI_G_20090712150850.jpgRiders in New Orleans, where streetcars are soon to be operated by a private contractor. (Photo: WSJ)

The change is one of three that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) plans to make to its oft-criticized "New Starts" program for funding major new investments.

As
the FTA explained in its regulatory filing, since 2007 the agency had
been rewarding transit proposals that used "innovative contractual
agreements" to bolster their local financing commitment (emphasis is
mine):

Specifically, FTA increased the
operating financial plan rating (from ‘medium’ to ‘medium-high’ or
from ‘medium-high’ to ‘high’) when project sponsors provided
evidence that the operations and maintenance of the project will be
contracted out

FTA has determined that the type of
contracting arrangement used or considered by a project sponsor is not
useful or appropriate in determining the strength of the overall
project.

Contracting out for transit operations and maintenance has become something of a trend this year, with New Orleans, Phoenix, and Savannah all eyeing deals with private businesses.

It’s
unclear how many "New Starts" projects were affected by the old rating
system, but the practice of rewarding transit contractor use jibes with
the Bush administration’s overall affinity for privatizing government functions in defense and emergency management.

In
addition, the FTA’s new regulations speak to the need for a broader
reform of the transit-funding process as part of the next long-term
congressional transport bill. Using "New Starts" as a model for
high-speed rail funding agreements, as Yonah Freemark has suggested, would seem to be a premature move until the program is retooled.