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New Starts Faster!


From Dave Van Hattum, Policy and Advocacy Program Manager

President Obama, in his State of the Union address (1/31/12), put forward two initiatives that would have huge impacts on transit projects. Firstly, the President proposed using future savings in the defense budget to rebuild our nation’s physical infrastructure; and secondly, he directed all federal agencies to reduce bureaucracy and waste, including the New Starts program that funds major transitways, including light rail transit, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail. TLC's first look at the new rules yields the following summary.

The proposed changes to the New Starts program are designed to speed up the start-to-finish process. This is to be accomplished by granting pre-qualification warrants (based on ridership and cost estimates based on census data and post-data from comparable corridors), reducing the complexity of cost-effectiveness calculations, and eliminating repetitive analyses. This is smart policy that could help speed up the build out of our metro transitway system (pdf).

New Starts projects are competitively funded based on cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits and economic development benefits. The proposed rules place greater emphasis on social equity and economic development impacts. Social equity receives higher priority in three ways. 

  1. The benefit side of the cost-effectiveness calculation will be based on total rides rather than total travel time savings. This change reduces the emphasis on attracting new riders, shifting the focus to those locations where there are the largest number of riders. This will tend to advantage core city and first ring suburbs, where housing and employment density is greater. There also are more low income residents and people of color in these areas (though the demographic makeup of the core and first ring suburbs is changing). The environmental rating will continue to include a calculation of car travel (VMT) reduction, which will still confer benefits to longer transit trips.
  2. Transit dependent riders are counted double. Low-income individuals and people of color are far more likely to be transit dependent.
  3. Higher scores will go to transitways where “policies maintaining or increasing affordable housing are in place.”

The proposed rules also tweak the assessment of economic development resulting from a proposed new rail line. The local economic development impacts of a new LRT line are typically significant. The Central Corridor Investment Framework, for example, projects $6 billion in mostly private investment along the corridor over the next 20 to 30 years. Accurately predicting these outcomes, however, is quite challenging, as many factors (global and local economy, road investment, etc.) besides the increased transit access are in play. 

The proposed rules ultimately make a relatively small change in the assessment of economic development impacts. Applicants, per the new rules, would have the option to make the case “beyond current land use plans” for broader economic impacts that would improve the overall rating for their project. FTA suggests that applicants develop scenario-based estimates of how greater density decreases car travel. The agency also commits to a broader inclusion of the economic development impacts of higher housing and employment density, “once better measures for agglomeration effects are developed.”

It seems fair to conclude that regions able to show how a proposed transitway will result in more dense or compact land use will be better positioned to receive federal funding via the New Starts program. Of course, there is a chicken or egg quality to the timing of building new rail lines and changing local land use plans and zoning. That’s why TLC will continue to advocate both for the investment necessary to speed up the build out of regional transitways and for a new regional plan (see Met Council update of Regional Development Framework) that provides incentives for locating more housing and employment near transitways (LRT, BRT, and commuter rail) and high frequency bus service.

US DOT press release about streamlining New Starts

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Update from Washington: Advocates for transit, bicycling, and walking on red alert

Since the 1980s, the U.S. Congress has written multi-year transportation laws to guide public investments in roadway construction, congestion relief, and public transportation. The last law (SAFETEA-LU) dates from 2005. It expired in 2009, but has been granted several extensions. The latest extension expires on March 31, 2012.

Much-anticipated new bills from the House and Senate moved through committees last week. While these bills have some desirable provisions, two measures recently introduced in the House have advocates of transit, bicycling and walking on red alert.

HR 7, the House transportation bill, consolidates several related programs and reduces some steps in the permitting process to bring projects to completion sooner and with less red tape. Alarmingly, this bill also includes language to strip all dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements, including the Safe Routes to School program.While bike/ped improvements are still allowed, the decision to fund these improvements would rest solely with the each state’s department of transportation (DOT).

Winter2The bill would eliminate the Transportation Enhancement program, which amounts to about 2-3% of each state’s federal transportation funding. In Minnesota, these funds have helped build pedestrian crossings and bike trails across the state including the well-traveled Midtown Greenway. Transportation Enhancements have been the only stable source of bike/ped funding at the federal level.

A companion bill (HR 3864), proposes to eliminate the dedicated revenue source that supports public transit throughout the country. Since 1982-- the Reagan Administration-- public transit has received a small portion of the federal gas tax to maintain convenient and affordable travel options that reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. The proposed bill would instead fund public transit through Congress’s annual appropriation process. This subjects transit agencies to a great deal of uncertainty and is a step backward for bus and train users in Minnesota and throughout the U.S.

Lindbergh from escOpposition has been swift and widespread. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has called the House bill the “worst transportation bill ever." More than 600 organizations and leaders-- including the US Chamber of Commerce, governors, and mayors-- signed a letter opposing the House financing bill, saying “it will make it impossible for public transit systems across the country to plan for the future.”

TLC works with a national coalition, Transportation for America, to raise the voice of transit supporters and bicycling/pedestrian advocates in Minnesota. Thanks to each of you who contacted your U.S. Representatives last week to urge them to continue dedicated funding for modes other than private cars!

We are very grateful for Minnesota representatives-- U.S. Representatives Tim Walz (1st District) and Erik Paulsen (3rd District)-- for supporting amendments that would continue dedicated funding for public transit, bicycling and walking. These amendments failed and the House bills are moving forward to a full floor vote later this month. We hope that our Minnesota Congressional Representatives and Senators will continue to work in a bipartisan fashion to shape a new transportation law that includes transit, bicycling, and walking among our nation’s transportation choices!

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Not Obsessed with LRT, but with a Healthy and Competitive Future


The Star Tribune recently featured an Op-Ed by Mr. David Osmek of Mound (Stop the light-rail obsession; February 1, 2012). Transit for Livable Communities responds to some of the questionable statements in the piece, which sought to undermine the expansion of the public transit system in the Twin Cities. 



Osmek: Stop the light-rail obsession.

TLC:  And be prepared to fall behind our peer cities in attracting jobs and talent. Denver, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and San Jose, to name a few, have transit systems 2-4 times the size of ours, judging by the number of LRT cars they have in service. And some are moving faster than we are to build new lines. Some of these cities are ambitiously building more than one line at the same time to better serve more residents.



Osmek: Riders pay only 99 cents.

TLC:  The base fare for Metro Transit light rail is $1.75, rising to $2.25 in rush hour. The Twin Cities' Metro Transit system ranks high among peers in fare-box recovery, according to the National Transit Database, the federal reporting data for required of all public transit systems.



Osmek: The true cost of a ride “does not include the amortized cost of bonding for the build-out of the line.” 

TLC:  The cost of Southwest LRT and light rail in general is substantial, but pales in comparision to the cost of roads and driving.  While some road costs are covered by user fees, billions of other costs for local roads, vehicle parking, and traffic safety are subsidized by non-transportation sources.  There also are costs involved with owning and operating private vehicles – an annual expense of up to $8,000 per vehicle that can’t be avoided or reduced when there are not options like bus and rail.



Osmek:  Rail, “in my opinion, has a negligible effect on traffic congestion.”  

TLC:  Really?  50% of the 30,000 daily Hiawatha LRT riders previously travelled by car. Imagine all those people back in a car on crowded Hiawatha Ave or I-35W. And a rail car uses a tiny fraction of the transportation right of way that cars do to move a comparable number of people. In a corridor with many destinations and a high number of jobs and residents (all of which the SWLRT corridor has), light rail is a very efficient way for people to get around. A 3-car LRT train easily carries 400 people and it runs every 7.5-10 minutes at peak times. A typical bus carries about 40 passengers. The average occupancy of cars during the work commute is 1.05 people.  



Osmek:  MnDOT studies have proven that roads have a benefit/cost ratio greater than one. “

TLC:  MnDOT studies have also reported “for every $1 invested in public transportation, $4 is generated in economic returns” (2009 MnDOT Transit Report, p 3). The Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) reports that each dollar invested in the nation’s public transit system provides $6 in benefits, in the form of time savings, parking and travel time savings, avoided job loss, avoided welfare payments, avoided vehicle crashes, avoided congestion and pollution, increased central city labor opportunities, increased mobility for young people without access to private vehicles, and improved educational opportunities (AASHTO Press Release, Washington, DC, January 14, 2009).



Osmek:  The Hiawatha Line was projected at 0.42 (benefit/cost) in 1999, meaning that for every dollar spent, we receive 42 cents in value.”  

TLC:  Osmek doesn’t provide a citation for this projection because none exists.This is just a repeat of his earlier mis-statement regarding Hiawatha LRT farebox recovery.*  A comprehensive investment framework (pdf) for the Central Corridor projects $6 billon in future development along the line, on par with results in Dallas and Portland. There is every reason to believe that the SW LRT will have a comparable economic benefit to the cities along the line. 

Update: Thanks to for finding the the benefit/cost assessment Osmek refers to, "Final Hiawatha Corridor LRT benefit-cost analysis," Mn/DOT, 1999. The report states (p.3), “Hiawatha LRT is the most cost-effective means of achieving the goals and objectives of the stakeholders.” Many of the key data inputs used to project the benefit-cost assessment turned out to be off the mark. For instance, the report said ridership in 2020 would be 24,558/day when in 2011 it already was 30,500/weekday. The value of avoided auto trips was estimated using $25.9 cents per mile, when the current IRS reimbursement rate (used by most employers across the country) is $55 cents per mile.

Transit currently saves the Twin Cities region $80 million annually by reducing congestion delays, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report. Our own state transportation agency, MnDOT, has said that the state cannot build its way out of traffic congestion. Investing in transitways, especially in corridors with the level of jobs, residents, and congestion as the Southwest corridor, provides residents with an alternative to congested travel ("u text, we drive," as Southwest Transit likes to say) and is a step toward a more affordable transportation for residents and businesses alike.

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100 million transit trips in Minnesota


From Barb Thoman, Executive Director

Transit service across Minnesota is taking people to the places they need to go. MnDOT’s 2011 Transit Report provides a summary of the “state of transit” in Minnesota, with information on providers, level of service, investment, and ridership.

MnDOT2011TransitReportcoverIn 2010, 100 million trips were taken on public transit in Minnesota. Our state’s residents rode to work and school on systems large and small. They caught the bus to the doctor in Roseau and to a summer community education class in Rushford. By the end of 2011, 70 of the 80 counties in Greater Minnesota had county-wide transit service – a dramatic increase from only 35 counties with county-wide service 20 years ago. 

All seven metro counties have transit service. Ninety percent of transit trips occur in the Twin Cities Metro Area, in part because service there is better funded, more widely available, and a greater density of destinations and riders make service easier to provide.

Some interesting things in the report: 

  • State support for intercity bus service, primarily provided by Jefferson Lines, has lead to greatly increased ridership and declining costs. The state supports intercity connections between Minneapolis and Duluth, Rochester, and Sioux Falls; and service between Fargo, Bemidji, Grand Forks, and Wadena. 
  • Transit providers with the lowest cost per rider are University of Minnesota transit, Winona Transit Service, St. Cloud Metro Bus, and Hiawatha light rail. Minnesota transit service cost numbers compares very favorably with peer agencies around the country.
  • MnDOT estimated that currently only 60 percent of the transit need is being met in Greater Minnesota. Another $140 million annually will be needed to ensure that service is available in all counties and that routes and the frequency of service meets community needs. The report did not contain an estimate of the unmet transit need in the metro area as the Metropolitan Council would more appropriately make that estimate. 

Here is a link to the full report:



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