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Implementing MAP-21: Public Transit Agencies and Riders Must Be at the Table
BY DERON LOVAAS, Federal Transportation Policy Director, Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington, DC

This summer’s Congressional debate signaled a different era for public transportation policy. The House of Representatives threatened to take the Mass Transit Account out of the Highway Trust Fund for the first time in its 30-year history. This would have ended dedicated support for public transit systems across the country. Thankfully, bipartisan pressure—especially in the suburbs of Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia—killed this terrible idea. However, the whole fight signaled a new era for public transit investment.

Public transit agencies and riders need to keep this in mind and engage aggressively in the law’s implementation.

One small victory in the law is that transit providers are given an official seat at Metropolitan Planning Organization planning tables, which is a good thing because the motto for public transit agencies in this new law might as well be: “If you’re not on the table, you might be on the menu.”

For example, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program was created as a complement to the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments to fund pollution- and congestion-reducing projects. Much of this large program is devoted to transit projects (more than 40 percent of the total in its first 10 years). Under the new transportation law, up to one-half of the funding can be “flexed” to projects that could exacerbate air quality and traffic congestion: for example, siphoning money for costly, sprawl-inducing highway projects. As public transit agencies and fans, we must make our case for this funding early and often now that it can be diverted.

One possible cost-effective use for CMAQ funding is construction and expansion of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service. As Governing magazine notes this month, such projects are moving in a host of places including Connecticut, Florida, and right next door to me in Montgomery County, MD.

A sterling example of BRT is Cleveland’s seven-mile line, built in 2008 at the cost of $200 million. While this initial construction did not use CMAQ dollars, in 2010 the transit agency did invest $5 million from CMAQ funds in the system. Public transit agencies across the country should look to CMAQ to fund BRT given possible air quality and congestion benefits as well as cost-effectiveness.

We must also be at the table when transportation officials define “cost-effectiveness” itself and when larger metro areas (one million or more) develop “performance plans” for CMAQ investments. This is especially important given a new, trenchant critique of an old-school technique for assessing travel efficiency—most famously embodied by the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual ranking of cities based on traffic conditions.

Economist Joe Cortright found that such assessments rate travel conditions based on average time in congestion as opposed to the more thorough and accurate average of total travel time. This can yield bizarre outcomes. For example, Chicago, with its total average commute travel time of just 32.6 minutes, rates more poorly than Charlotte with 48 minutes.

Since time is what we value, that’s what we should measure. Less travel time is due in part to better land use, and distance and total time should be taken into account when determining project performance and cost-effectiveness.

Another activity that public transit leaders should drive is the establishment of performance measures for transportation programs. These will be developed nationally within one year by DOT; then transit agencies have three months to design measures aligned with them.

Performance management—transitioning to a “performance-driven” national transportation program as the Bipartisan Policy Center advocates—is a great idea whose time is coming. It’s not here yet, sadly. The performance measures that this bill requires from federal, state, and regional institutions aren’t connected to actual project funding and so don’t vertically align investments from long-range plans to where the rubber hits the road with performance metrics.

The measures aren’t very broad either, since the most thorough requirements cover system conditions and safety and not air quality or economic competitiveness. However, they could be a good start, but only if transit agencies help to shape them at the national, state, regional, and agency levels.

Last but not least, the bill offers a big opportunity for innovative transit financing. A new “America Fast Forward” initiative increases money for federal loans several-fold, largely due to the successful advocacy of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles to help fund the landmark 30-10 plan in southern California, which aims to frontload 30 years worth of public transportation expansion into just a decade.

Congress saw fit to eliminate several performance criteria and “first come, first served” is certain to be key to determining recipients, so public transit agencies should move fast. And if APTA members want to influence the overall program’s direction, the fuse is even shorter for that: comments are due into DOT by Sept. 1!

The program has also been changed so a loan can cover nearly one-half of project costs, and it allows private funding as part of repayment, which should spur agencies to capture more of the private value due to service extensions. We have a prime example of such innovative financing here in D.C.: Private businesses chipped in several million dollars for the construction of the new New York Avenue Station on the Washington Metro system.

The takeaway? Readers should rush to the table and drive MAP-21 implementation to secure public transportation’s future. Let’s get to work.

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