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Accounting for the Economic Payoff of Streetcars and Buses

Lots of reaction from Streetsblog Network members to yesterday's big
transit grant announcement
. They're thrilled in Fort
and Cincinnati,
where the FTA distributed the maximum $25 million for new streetcar
lines. They're disappointed in D.C.,
where the request to fund a streetcar segment linking up with Metro
lines was denied. When a billion dollars worth of requests are put
forward for $130 million in grant money, not every good proposal will
make it through.


A big part of the appeal of these competitive
grant programs is that U.S. DOT can use them to advance specific goals,
like connecting people to where the jobs are. Michael Lindenberger, a
reporter for the Dallas Morning News and Streetsblog Network member,
contrasts the performance measures employed by the Obama administration
to discarded
Bush 43-era criteria
that worked against streetcar projects. He

Previously, major transit projects were subjected to a rigorouscost-benefit analysis where success depended almost entirely on whetherthe money spent produced enough of a mobility benefit for the recipientcities. That meant that transit projects had to draw enough traffic offthe crowded urban highways and onto bus and rail to justify the bigprice tags.

But a drawback of that approach was that it rules out many kindsof downtown projects, including streetcars, because they simply didn'tattract sufficient riders to make a difference to the average commute.

So the Obama Administration has given other factors a moreprominent place in the transit cost-benefit analysis, and now askswhether a project would spur economic development for its host city.Would it foster land use changes that would add energy to the downtownstreets? Would it boost a city's property tax base, or createconnections between existing transportation networks, such as raillines?

These things were on my mind Thursday morning while listening toTransportation Secretary Ray LaHood shout out the praises forstreetcars, bus rapid transit and other ideas. I wanted a little extratime with FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff to flesh out the details, andRogoff kindly called me later to discuss them.

"Part of the problem before was that we couldn't look at theeconomic development aspect of a (transit) project," said Rogoff, whopreviously was a top Senate staffer who helped write some of the keytransportation legislation over the years. "We were collecting data onthose things, but the crux of it was that we weren't doing anything with it."

Elsewhere on the Network: Gateway
explains why replacing I-70 in downtown St. Louis with an
urban boulevard won't cause the traffic disaster Missouri DOT says it
will; EcoVelo
reports on a new study confirming that the health benefits of cycling
outweigh the risks; and The Dirt
digs up the story of a small Maryland town looking to create some
seriously green streets.

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