Some great news slipped under the radar last week

I’m tired of thinking about the Massachusetts Senate race. Here’s some good news from last week that drew little media coverage.

It confirmed my view that Transportation Secetary Ray LaHood will turn out to be one of President Obama’s outstanding appointments.  

Last Wednesday LaHood

proposed that new funding guidelines for major transit projects be based on livability issues such as economic development opportunities and environmental benefits, in addition to cost and time saved, which are currently the primary criteria.

In remarks at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting, the Secretary announced the Obama Administration’s plans to change how projects are selected to receive federal financial assistance in the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts and Small Starts programs.  As part of this initiative, the FTA will immediately rescind budget restrictions issued by the Bush Administration in March of 2005 that focused primarily on how much a project shortened commute times in comparison to its cost.  

“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” said Secretary LaHood.  “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”

This represents a big change from a Bush administration rule, imposed in 2005, which “elevated ‘cost-effectiveness’ above all other criteria used to determine whether a local transit project can receive federal funds.” Representative Earl “The Bike” Blumenauer, one of the most progressive voices in Congress on transportation issues, hailed LaHood’s action:

Rescinding this Bush administration restriction will unleash funding for important transportation projects across the nation, jumpstarting local economies and creating good jobs.  This means quicker and better funding for streetcars, light rail, and bus projects that improve transportation, revive local economies, and reduce global warming pollution. After much hard work with the administration and my Congressional colleagues, this is an exciting outcome that will create better and more transportation opportunities.

At Transportation for America’s blog, Stephen Lee Davis noted,

one problem that this will not fix is the very high demand for a limited supply of New Starts funding. Even under the old narrow rules for winning approval, only a small percentage of the many applicants were receiving limited funding, and even then, the federal government was only matching about half of local funds, compared with at least 80 percent for road projects.

Still, LaHood has taken an important and welcome step toward reorienting the way the DOT evaluates projects.

LaHood’s new direction on transit funding is part of a broad sustainable communities initiative that he and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan announced last March. The Environmental Protection Agency joined the interagency partnership in June, which will promote the following “Livability Principles”:

   *  Provide more transportation choices.  Develop safe, reliable, and economical transportation choices to decrease household transportation costs, reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote public health.

   * Promote equitable, affordable housing.  Expand location- and energy-efficient housing choices for people of all ages, incomes, races, and ethnicities to increase mobility and lower the combined cost of housing and transportation.

   * Enhance economic competitiveness.  Improve economic competitiveness through reliable and timely access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services and other basic needs by workers, as well as expanded business access to markets.

   * Support existing communities.  Target federal funding toward existing communities-through strategies like transit oriented, mixed-use development, and land recycling-to increase community revitalization and the efficiency of public works investments and safeguard rural landscapes.

   * Coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment.  Align federal policies and funding to remove barriers to collaboration, leverage funding, and increase the accountability and effectiveness of all levels of government to plan for future growth, including making smart energy choices such as locally generated renewable energy

   * Value communities and neighborhoods.  Enhance the unique characteristics of all communities by investing in healthy, safe, and walkable neighborhoods-rural, urban, or suburban.

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