The Transport Politic has a great summary of the new surface transportation bill, touching both on details of the bill but also some of the policy questions that it did not address. Excerpt with relation to transit below:
In terms of funding for mass transit, the bill offers $8.478 billion in FY 2013, rising to $8.595 billion in FY 2014, both on par with existing funding levels, adjusted for inflation. Programs designed to distribute funds by formula remain the largest percentage of the bill and grow similarly, accounting for about $6.5 billion in spending in both years, mostly to pay for the purchase of new buses and the reconstruction of facilities (such as through State of Good Repair grants). The capital investment program, however, has been cut by about $50 million and is stuck at $1.91 billion in both years. This funding provides for the Small Start and New Start programs, which provide the grant funding for new rail and bus corridors.
Despite the lack of increase in funding for those capital expansion programs, a close examination of the bill shows that it offers a number of interesting changes in the way this money is to be allocated to transit agencies:
- The New Starts program, in the past reserved to new rail or bus lines operating in dedicated rights-of-way in new corridors, will be expanded to include “Core Capacity Improvement Projects” that significantly improving existing infrastructure while increasing capacity on the existing line by 10% or more.
- Bus rapid transit projects will be classified and funded in the following two ways:
- Corridor-Based BRT will lack a separate right of way. As the bill describes, however, these BRT programs will involve ”a substantial investment in a defined corridor as demonstrated by features that emulate the services provided by rail… including defined stations; traffic signal priority for public transportation vehicles; short headway bidirectional services for a substantial part of weekdays and weekend days.”
- Fixed Guideway BRT, on the other hand, means a bus-based project that includes all of the features of the Corridor-Based BRT, plus “the majority of the project operates in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation use during peak periods.” The law includes the provision that the federal government will provide 80% funding for up to three such projects each fiscal year. This is an excellent opportunity for cities that want to invest in a big and serious BRT program to set their ideas into action, with limited local support needed. I hope they’re paying attention.
- The federal government will provide expedited review for fixed guideway projects under two circumstances: New Start projects whose budget is less than $100 million in total; and projects designed by transit agencies that have recently completed similar projects that have achieved or surpassed expected budget, cost, and ridership measures.
- The Secretary of Transportation will be able to increase the federal share for a capital expansion project if “the net capital project cost… is not more than 10 percent higher” and ridership estimates are “not less than 90 percent” of the estimates at the time the project was approved into the engineering phase of the review process.
The bill expands the TIFIA reduced cost loan program to $1 billion a year (from just over $100 million) and increases the maximum federal share from 33% to 49%, both important advances for cities that promise to dedicate future tax or toll revenues to pay for transportation improvement programs. Essentially, the federal government is increasing the ability of local governments to take advantage of lower federal borrowing costs. In Los Angeles, which has promoted the program heavily under the name “America Fast Forward,” TIFIA loans will allow for the completion of such projects as L.A.’s Westside Subway.
MAP-21 does allow small transit agencies — those with 100 buses used in the peak — to receive operating assistance (currently only capital expenditures are covered by federal transit funding). Though this provision isn’t the kind of large increase in operations support that might be beneficial to cash-starved agencies that are expanding their systems while firing bus drivers, it raises the question of whether large transit agencies could split themselves into smaller operating entities to receive federal operating support via a loophole in the law.