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U.S. DOT Previews How New Transit Rules Could Define ‘Livability’

When the Obama administration announced
an ambitious revamp of transit funding rules to, as the Transportation
Secretary put it, "take livability into account," urban planners and
rail fans alike were pleased -- but also uncertain.

35861766.jpgBaltimore's
rail network, with the proposed new Red Line -- which could get a boost
from the U.S. DOT's livability changes -- in the center. Click here for a larger version. (Map: Baltimore Grows)

Several pointed out
that extra competition for existing transit money would have little
impact without a bigger annual pot of funding. Still others wondered
how exactly the U.S. DOT would go about judging the livability
potential of various transit proposals.

The first of those concerns, the overall level of federal
transit funding, is nearly impossible to address without a new six-year
federal transportation bill. But the U.S. DOT made some headway on the
second question yesterday.

While addressing the U.S.
Conference of Mayors, assistant transport secretary for policy Polly
Trottenberg was asked by the mayor of Clearwater, Florida, to outline
how the agency might "quantify livability" in its upcoming rulemaking.

Trottenberg
said U.S. DOT learned decision-making lessons from the TIGER grants, a
$1.5 billion competitive program in the stimulus law that she said
called for extra sets of hands from the EPA and HUD.

"Not
everything can be measured," Trottenberg said, adding that her
colleagues wanted to avoid making the "mistake of false precision."

She
also addressed the pitfalls of relying on in-house economic predictions
to assess transit projects. Several local rail lines have quickly
exceeded initial federal ridership projections, casting doubt on the
models used for the so-called New Starts program.

"Sometimes we've gotten so tangled up in the perfect mathematical science -- we did it in New Starts," Trottenberg said.

Though
Trottenberg was careful not to predict the content of still-unwritten
regulations, she described some livability questions that came into
play last year and could be a factor as the agency writes its new
transit funding rules.

"Is this project going to include all modes?" she said. "[Will the project] help boost businesses on Main Street?"

Trottenberg
also fielded another telling question from the mayor of Bowling Green,
Kentucky, who wondered how the federal government could help cities
realign their transportation thinking in an era of shrinking budgets.

"One
of the things the last administration discovered is that congestion
pricing is a great idea economically ... politically, it's a tough
sell," Trottenberg replied.

But the challenge of getting
lawmakers on board for new road pricing wasn't dissuading the new
deputy secretary. "What we're seeing now, with the current funding
crisis, is that we're going to have to do some of that," she added.

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