Vol. 17, No. 5; September/October 2006
Should the surface transportation program be extended in its present form after the expiration of the current authorization in 2009? Or should it be restructured in a major way to better reflect changing needs and current realities? If so, what are the core issues that need to be addressed in restructuring the program? These are the fundamental questions facing the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission when it resumes its deliberations after the summer recess.
Back in March 2006, in a Brief entitled “Highway Tolling Has Reached the Tipping Point,” we wrote: “Virtually every week brings fresh evidence that highway tolling and private financing are gaining new converts among governors and state transportation officials, in state legislatures, and in the media. Since March, we have issued several updates providing additional evidence that highway tolling and private financing of road infrastructure have indeed reached the tipping point. This latest update covers the period from late June through early September, arranged in a reverse chronological order.
As the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) observed in its recent report, the federal role in transit investment is in a state of transition. The era of retrofitting cities with massive multi-billion dollar rail systems has just about come to an end. While federal capital assistance to transit will no doubt continue, its function is shifting to consolidating the achievements of the past 40 years... Today, the federal transit program no longer deals with a relatively few major system-wide projects. Instead, it is faced with a multitude of requests for funding from cities large and small, often for extensions to already existing rail systems. This cumulative demand threatens to outpace what can be realistically expected in future federal funding. Thus, the biggest challenge facing FTA in the years ahead will be to prudently select the most meritorious projects from among the many competing applications, weed out ineffective projects, stem the flood of new rail applications and ensure a transparent evaluation and selection process...
...Like the Interstate Highway system, the UMTA/FTA rail investment program was the right initiative for its time. But having achieved the remarkable record of retrofitting 22 cities with rail transit infrastructure, the federal rail investment program is ripe for a fundamental reassessment of its purpose and future directions. Just as changing circumstances and eroding resources have made it necessary to take a new look at the post-Interstate federal highway program, so changing conditions may call for a review and new directions for the 40-year old federal transit program.
Streetcars are making a comeback. As many as 40 U.S. cities are in various stages of considering or planning streetcar projects according to a recent survey conducted for the Community Streetcar Coalition. Just as 30 years ago a less costly light rail transit (LRT) technology began to replace expensive heavy rail systems, so today streetcars are offering to medium size cities a more affordable fixed guideway alternative to light rail systems. Fueling the rising interest in streetcars is a recent Federal Transit Administration rule that makes streetcar projects eligible for “Very Small Starts” grants. (Interim Guidance on Small Starts, July 26, 2006, 71 FR 45100, August 8, 2006). Very Small Starts is a subcategory in the new Small Starts program designed to encourage “simple, low-risk projects” with a total capital cost of less than $50 million and less than $3 million per mile exclusive of rolling stock. Because of its highly simplified rating and approval process and modest local matching requirements, streetcar projects are expected to attract a growing following among cities competing for federal rail transit funding.
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