The federal House-Senate conference committee negotiating the details of the federal transportation bill is “making very good progress,” conference chair Sen. Barbara Boxer said at a Washington press conference this week. But this optimism could prove unfounded if talks break down over pedestrian and bicycle safety funding, the Keystone XL pipeline, or any number of other issues — related to or unrelated to transportation.
But there’s no reason for this to happen. As editorial boards and advocates across the country have said, the Senate’s MAP-21 bill already represents a bipartisan compromise that would provide stable funding and reform the transportation system. This is particularly true in the bill’s approach to funding public transportation projects. Here’s a closer look at how the federal bill could affect expansion projects, operating budgets, transit riders, and planning, and the benefits these reforms could provide to the region.
A new look at New Starts
The Senate’s bill would reform New Starts, the grant program which funds major expansion projects like the Second Avenue Subway. While the majority of federal highway funding is simply given to states according to formulas, transit expansion projects go through a lengthy federal review process. MAP-21 would speed things up by eliminating some of the duplicative steps that delay project delivery. For example, unlike virtually all other transportation projects, New Starts projects must complete two “alternatives analysis” studies which compare different alignments and transit modes (one is required in the New Starts process; the other is required by the National Environmental Policy Act.) MAP-21 would eliminate one of them. In addition, reviews would be further streamlined for projects costing less than $100 million (these “Small Starts” projects include, in our region, NYC’s Nostrand Avenue Select Bus Service).
Notably, the Senate bill would create a new category of “core capacity” New Starts grants that can fund improvements to existing transit corridors. Core capacity grants would be judged using the same criteria (new ridership, travel time savings, etc.) as expansion projects. This new program could provide a new funding option for improvements that aren’t presently eligible for New Starts funding, like an overhaul of signals on an entire subway line, or the double-tracking of the LIRR between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma.
Flexibility for transit agencies
The Senate’s bill would also give transit agencies “temporary and targeted” flexibility to use a portion of their federal funds for operating expenses when unemployment is high (currently, all but the smallest transit agencies are barred from using federal funds for operating expenses). In recent years, the economic downturn has put enormous strain on transit systems, creating pressure to raise fares and cut service just as the need for public transportation is highest. For example, Albany’s Capital District Transportation Authority raised fares by 50% in 2009, while the Central NY Regional Transportation Authority raised fares by 60% in Syracuse last year. Substantial fare hikes also took place on the MTA and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in New York, and in 2010, NJ Transit enacted the largest fare hike in a generation. In Connecticut, Metro-North fares will increase by over 15% over the next three years.
Restoring the commuter benefit
The Senate bill would increase the transit commuter tax benefit to $240/month, making it equal to the benefit offered for parking. In 2009, the transit benefit was made equal to the parking benefit, but it fell to $125/month this past January 1st after Congress failed to renew it. If it is not fixed, the financial impact on LIRR, Metro-North, NJ Transit, and New York City Transit express bus commuters could be hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year. By embedding this provision in the base transportation law, it would become much less likely to expire than in the past.
Helping municipalities prepare for transit
The Senate bill would also create a $20 million transit-oriented development (TOD) planning program for municipalities near New Starts funded projects. Getting TOD done right is often a lengthy, challenging task for short-staffed local governments. These projects must contend with outdated zoning requirements, build community consensus around what type of development is appropriate, and ensure that new development maximizes the benefits of transit. The Senate bill’s program would help municipalities through that process, and complement existing programs, like the New Jersey Transit Village initiative, which have been providing technical assistance and guidance for years. Possible beneficiaries in our region include towns on Long Island that will see expanded LIRR service due to East Side Access, and Connecticut municipalities that will be served by the CTfastrak bus rapid transit system.