Better Planning for Livability Requires Better Funding for Transit

Senator Chris Dodd held a hearing yesterday to discuss his Livable Communities Act, which would provide grant funding for communities to plan and implement strategies to improve livability. In his statement, he explains:

This legislation will provide resources for comprehensive planning. The design of our communities is often seen as primarily a local issue, but the enduring consequences of how we lay out our communities are national in scope. New studies show that 'location-efficient' homes are less likely to risk foreclosure. Less compact communities that force residents to rely solely on their cars increase the cost burden of transportation on households, and transportation is already the second largest expense for American households, ahead of food, clothing and healthcare.

The Livable Communities Act will also provide capital grants so that regions can compete to implement their plans. The grants can be tailored to meet the needs of diverse regions - one community can use the grants to redevelop brownfields in a post-industrial area, another region can use the funds to develop or preserve mixed income housing near transit, and another might create a walkable, pedestrian-friendly Main Street or town center.

This sounds like a good idea, and I'm glad to see Senator Dodd highlighting the importance of giving people more transportation options, which he does throughout his statement. No matter how much interest communities have in increasing livability, though, they'll continue to face substantial hurdles when it comes to building, expanding, and maintaining public transit systems, which are a key component of livable communities.

Back in January, I wrote about new proposed Department of Transportation guidelines that would make it easier for new public transit projects to get federally funding. The Bush administration had required that decisions about funding under the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts and Small Starts programs be made based on narrow criteria of shortened commute times, but the Obama administration proposed rescinding those restrictions and basing funding guidelines for new transit projects on a broader range of criteria, including economic development opportunities and environmental benefits, in addition to cost and time savings.

Changing the New Starts and Small Starts funding guidelines is a good step, but it doesn't fix the underlying problem that road projects can get 80% of their costs funding by the federal government, but public transit projects will only get 50%. I'll just quote what I wrote back in January about the implications:

This uneven funding formula means that when state governments try to tackle congestion, they find building new highways to financially easier than adding new public-transit capacity. If a $100 million highway proposal is competing against a $100 million transit proposal, the costs to the state will be $20 million and $50 million, respectively. This creates a bias towards building new roads rather than new transit lines, even though the transit lines may be better for the region's long-term development and environmental health.

The way state funding decisions get made can also stack the deck against public transportation. A single metropolitan region might contain a large share of its state's population (and generate a large share of its revenue) and merit a major transit investment, but the governor and state legislature might be reluctant to make such a big investment in what's geographically a small part of the state. When metro areas cross state lines, it can be hard to get each state to pony up the needed funds simultaneously - something we've had a hard time doing here with DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

I'm glad to see Senator Dodd proposing legislation to advance livability planning. But if we really want to see more public transportation - and the mobility, livability, environmental, and congestion-reduction benefits that it brings - we'll have to make larger changes in how we fund transportation.

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"If a $100 million highway proposal is competing against a $100 million transit proposal, the costs to the state will be $50 million and $80 million, respectively."

Shouldn't the costs to the state be 20 million and 50 million?

Good catch - you're right. (It's fixed now.) Thanks!

By Liz Borkowski (not verified) on 10 Jun 2010 #permalink

Good points. Living in a rural county of 20,000 people an hour's freeway drive from a metropolitan center, I am amazed how fragmented funding can be for public transit (here, effectively turned into a competition among the few countywide fiefdoms--transit districts--able to maintain any). As for federal funding, recent ARRA monies make building a transit center or even a parking lot easy as pie, but it's a joke to seek monies for expanded transit services. We find duplicate services--e.g., a bus and a trolley covering the same routes--in major urban centers, perhaps a (relatively) highspeed interurban bus or train route, generally of 500 miles or more, out in the countryside, and nearly nothing in-between; local transit systems may exist in some towns or counties, but intercounty or town-to-metro-center routes just don't get funded, no matter how urgent the econ dev or healthcare access or other reasons for such development. [disclosure--I'm on my county public transportation board, a post I ran for in hopes to push for better rural-urban public transit]

Paula, you raise a good point about the *kinds* of projects that can get funded. There often seems to be more interest in adding a new line or type of service, rather than, say, running more buses on a heavily used route - or even maintaining existing service when money's tight.

By Liz Borkowski (not verified) on 11 Jun 2010 #permalink