Transportation Project Selection: What’s Driving It Now? What Will Influence It In the Future? Updates from the States

Earlier this year, I named “project selection” one of my top 5 issues in transportation for 2015. From light rail and streetcar projects to efforts to reform planning processes to the costs of highway construction to the potential impacts of such factors as millennial preferences and autonomous vehicles, project selection is being pondered and debated in every state and community around the country. I have updates on what’s been happening this year in 21 states and the District of Columbia as well as links to recent reports on transportation spending limitations, performance measurement, Complete Streets policies, commuter and job growth trends and the future of cars.

Project Selection: Updates from the States

  • Arizona: An expansion of light rail and a downtown streetcar are on a $30 billion wish list developed by city leaders in Phoenix, The Arizona Republic reported. The projects would be funded by extending and nearly doubling a current sales tax. The Phoenix City Council approved the plan Tuesday March 3 on a 6-3 vote, the newspaper reported. Voters will be asked to approve the tax in August. The city’s current transit tax (a 0.40 percent sales tax) is used to fund bus and light rail services but it’s set to expire in 2020. Some think the rest of the state of Arizona would be wise to follow Phoenix’s lead. Tim Gallen of the Phoenix Business Journal writes that a new freeway proposed by the state DOT to alleviate traffic on another route takes the wrong approach. “It’s long past time for the region to park the cars and expand our burgeoning mass transit systems,” he writes. “I think the city of Phoenix is on the right track with its proposed $30 billion sales tax measure to extend and expand Metro light rail to other parts of the city. Yes, that’s an eye-popping number, but cities with robust and strong transit systems actually have stronger economies.”
  • California: The UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law recently released the report “Moving Dollars: Aligning Transportation Spending With California’s Environmental Goals,” which identifies three priority solutions for improving that alignment. Among them: establishing rigorous performance standards for new transportation projects that ensure they are cost-effective, reduce driving miles, and provide more transportation options, among other possible metrics; reforming the transportation decision-making processes by developing a common transportation vision for state agencies, with incentives for local and regional agencies to follow it; and directing a greater percentage of transportation dollars to the maintenance of existing infrastructure, including to make roadways safe and accessible for people who take transit, walk and bike.  … San Francisco public radio station KQED in a recent report examined how Bay Area transportation planners are looking decades into the future to determine what it will take to move more residents around. “Express toll lanes, modern trains, buses that run faster and more frequently, protected bike lane networks and communities designed to give people more options to get around are the future,” the report noted. “Getting there is going to take a long time, a ton of money and lots of political will.”
  • Connecticut: The annual report of the Connecticut Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board examines the state’s progress in implementing a 2009 Complete Streets Law and a 2014 Complete Streets Policy at the state DOT. “In recent years, Connecticut has worked to put walking, biking and transit use on an equal footing with driving,” the report notes. “Yet necessary as these efforts are, they are not sufficient. Decades of transportation planning and projects that focused on the promotion of automobile use cannot be changed in a year or two. More work remains to be done.” According to the report, only one in 20 employees takes transit to work, only 3 percent walk and only 0.5 percent bike. “Such dependency on the car isolates large and growing parts of the population (the young, the old, the disabled and the poor) and imposes a huge burden on households,” the report said. “That our transportation system continues to put families under financial strain and to shut members of our society out from full participation in the economy demonstrate the need for continued reform.”
  • District of Columbia: D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is considering killing plans to expand the city’s much-delayed, 2.2 mile streetcar system, which was a priority for her predecessor Vincent Gray who viewed it as the lynchpin of future economic development and multi-modal transportation in the District, WAMU reported.
  • Georgia: The Atlantic CityLab reported recently on the turnaround of Atlanta’s public transit agency, MARTA. The agency was on the brink of financial disaster when Keith Parker took over as CEO in December 2012. Parker drew up a rescue plan that involved cutting unfilled positions, bringing more work in house including the development of a real-time transit information system, convincing Wall Street to upgrade the agency’s credit rating, and reinvesting savings to provide increased service. The agency also launched a transit-oriented development program.  
  • Illinois: A recent study by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) found that mass transit providers in Northeastern Illinois don’t receive the funds necessary from federal and state sources to address reinvestment needs. That underinvestment in recent years has led to a multi-billion dollar shortfall in mass transit funding, delaying new equipment purchases and infrastructure improvements and is projected to increase over the next decade without a significant increase in capital funding. … A group called the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance is conducting an economic analysis for a $350 million, more than six-mile long “Superloop” streetcar system, which would start at Ogilvie Transportation Center and Union Station and extend to Navy Pier, McCormick Place and the city’s museum campus, Gazette Chicago reported.
  • Indiana: The Indiana Department of Transportation and Gov. Mike Pence last month officially joined Illinois in putting the $3 billion Illiana Expressway project on hold. Kathleen Woodruff of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group writes that critics of highway boondoggles should be saying “good riddance.” “Illinois needs to move forward,” she wrote in a piece for Streetsblog USA. “First, the Illiana needs to be removed from the approved project list for future transportation funding. Its current position atop that list is a threat to every project beneath it. Illinois needs to be able to plan and prioritize for future infrastructure investments.” Woodruff argues that the project gained favor not because of its merit but because it was billed as a public-private partnership. “Illinois needs infrastructure for the future,” she continues. “Projects like the Illiana can’t be allowed to play havoc with the transportation planning and investment process. The Illiana should be put out of its misery for good, and steps need to be taken to protect against such abominations in the future.”
  • Maryland: Gov. Larry Hogan’s nominee for transportation secretary told state lawmakers at his confirmation hearing in January he would keep an open mind about two light rail projects in the state, The Baltimore Sun reported. Pete Rahn, who formerly headed state transportation agencies in Missouri and New Mexico, also tried to dispel the notion that the governor’s characterization of him as “the best highway builder in the country” meant that he was an enemy of transit. Rahn won the endorsement this week of the Senate’s executive nominations committee but awaits confirmation by the full Senate, The Washington Post noted. Rahn will review and make a recommendation to the governor about whether the two light rail projects—the Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the Red Line in Baltimore—should move forward as currently conceived. He is said to be considering ways to reduce costs on the Purple Line project including making service less frequent for users of the rail line, Greater Greater Washington reported. Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock looked recently at why killing the Purple Line would be an unprecedented move given the recent political history of major, expensive transportation projects in the region like the Intercounty Connector, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge expansion, the DC Streetcar, I-95 HOT lanes and the Silver Line in Virginia.
  • Massachusetts: The Boston Globe caught up with Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack following one of the biggest snowstorms in the state’s history. She talked about the state’s response to the blizzard and was also asked about the biggest transportation problems facing the Commonwealth. She cited deferred maintenance and learning how to say no as two of the biggest challenges. “Another big challenge is aligning how we plan for and invest in transportation with the broader needs of the state and its cities and towns,” she told the newspaper. “Transportation is really a tool for achieving other objectives, like a prosperous economy. … The transportation agency needs to be working much more closely with the rest of state government and cities and towns to really understand what their needs are so that, as we plan and invest, we are investing in the overall priorities for the Commonwealth.” When asked which cities she’d like to see Boston emulate, Pollack pointed to Salt Lake City with its public engagement and visioning process and Denver with its huge transit investment.
  • Michigan: A recent analysis of census data for the Detroit area found that in the places where most of region’s poor live there are fewer jobs per capita than in almost any other major city and in the suburbs where the jobs are, the city’s public transit system either doesn’t provide service, doesn’t go the distance or isn’t reliable enough to get them consistently from where they live to where they work, The Detroit Free Press reported. Some are hopeful that one of the solutions could be Proposal 1, a sales tax measure for transportation on the May 5 ballot. I wrote about that in a recent piece for CSG’s The Current State.   
  • Minnesota: The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on a Metropolitan Council meeting last month that exposed a divide over whether streetcars are a worthwhile investment for the region. “Advocates have touted streetcars as a driver of economic development, but a consultant’s report presented to the council Wednesday said it is difficult to measure their economic impacts in other cities,” the newspaper reported. “The same report found that other projects nationally have lacked proper planning to pay for operations and maintenance.”
  • Missouri: In a recent op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress argues that the Show-Me State needs to reform how it allocates transportation funds. “All modes of transportation require substantial subsidy,” he writes. “None are self-sufficient. Missouri is only able to maintain its highway network by subsidizing underperforming roadways with gas tax money from more heavily used roads and other sources such as the general fund and state bond proceeds. This has important implications for how Missouri invests in transportation. Due to restrictions imposed by the state constitution … the source of transportation money dictates how that money must be spent. This is a significant barrier to sound transportation planning, in part because the strict requirements (of the state’s constitution) force planners to pour money into road projects even when roads are not the best solution.” I have more from DeGood below.
  • Nevada: The Atlantic magazine recently pondered the question “Why Are Developers Still Building Sprawl?” in places like Las Vegas. Chris Leinberger, a land use strategist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the magazine that one reason may be because making homes walkable to transit centers requires more investment in mass transit, which hasn’t been a big priority for state and local governments in the wake of the recession.
  • New Mexico: Gov. Susana Martinez wants state lawmakers to funnel at least $60 million in bond proceeds to major highway construction projects in each of the next five years, the Associated Press reported. The money would come from the legislature’s annual infrastructure bond package, which is backed by severance tax revenue from oil and gas production. The earmarked bond proceeds would likely be focused on just a few large-scale projects per year. “We’ve got to look at projects that are going to make a bigger impact,” said House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairman Larry Larranaga, according to the Albuquerque Journal. “We want to look at which ones would create the most jobs.”  
  • New York: The future of bus rapid transit in New York City was the subject of a recent hearing of the City Council’s transportation committee, Capital New York reported. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to add 13 BRT (or Select Bus Service as it’s known in NYC) lines to the city’s seven existing lines within the next four years.
  • North Dakota: The state legislature was looking at whether to put regulations on autonomous vehicles, similar to those adopted in California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada but lawmakers voted recently to simply recommend the study of such vehicles and the potential for “autonomous-friendly” corridors in the state, The Bismarck Tribune reported.
  • Tennessee: Smart Growth America spoke recently with John Schroer, the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (and this year’s vice chair of the CSG Transportation Public Policy Committee). “I found when I moved into this position, a lot of cities did a poor job of long-range planning—in how they did zoning, in how they approved projects—and took very little consideration into the transportation mode,” Schroer said. “Oftentimes those cities would then call us and say ‘We’ve got a problem, you need to help us fix it.’ Well, that problem was self-created. It was self-created because they made bad zoning decisions. They put a school in the wrong place without thinking about transportation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to build a bypass to a bypass, and that purely is bad planning. We’ve got a whole division now that is working with communities right now and trying to help them not make those bad decisions, and when that happens the state saves money.”
  • Texas: The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reported recently on TEX Rail, a proposed 27-mile commuter rail line that once it is complete—perhaps as early as 2018—is expected to stretch from downtown Fort Worth to Terminal B at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. The line will include a stop in the city of Grapevine. “For Grapevine city leaders, TEX Rail is both exciting and a little concerning,” the newspaper noted. “They are eager to embrace the prospect of transit-oriented development, which could enhance the quality of life in the historical city center and bring new retail dollars to the thriving community of about 50,000 residents. But they also recognize that any missteps could spoil the city’s agrarian charm.”
  • Vermont: According to the annual report of the Vermont Transportation Board, young adults in the state are not only dissatisfied with Vermont’s transportation services, but believe the state’s limited public transportation options and bike and pedestrian facilities are causing many of their peers to either mover away or not consider Vermont as a place to live. "Vermont's population of young adults has been on the decline for decades now," said Transportation Board Chairman Nick Marro. "The reasons for this trend are multifaceted, but somewhere within this decline lies a transportation nexus. Understanding how young people view the current state of Vermont's transportation system, and understanding how those views differ from previous generations, is one of the keys to being able to properly plan for the state's future." … Smart Growth America reported recently on a pilot grant program in the state that is funding projects to help align land use planning and community revitalization efforts with transportation investments. The program is a joint effort of the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. “Programs like these have helped other states around the country grow local economies and better meet residents’ mobility needs,” said Roger Millar, Vice President of Smart Growth America, which has partnered with and advised VTrans. “In creating this program VTrans again demonstrates why the agency ranks with the most innovative transportation agencies in the nation, and Vermont’s communities and residents will be the ones to benefit.”
  • Virginia: The legislature has passed a bill that would partially plug a hole in transit capital funding and change the formula by which the Virginia DOT distributes highway construction funds to give local jurisdictions more opportunities to apply for road funding. Separate legislation endorsed by lawmakers would establish new oversight and accountability for public-private partnerships in the Commonwealth. … Gov. Terry McAuliffe said recently he wants to see more lanes and other changes on Interstate 66, one of the region’s major traffic-clogged commuter arteries, The Fairfax City Patch reported.
  • Washington: The Seattle Transit Blog reports that a study of downtown commuting trends in the city showed that 31 percent of workers now drive alone to work. That’s down from 50 percent in 2000, 35 percent in 2010 and 34 percent in 2012. “Our region’s traffic woes are real and in need of attention, but nonetheless these results show that downtown is at least keeping up with what’s needed for job growth to continue without being choked off by gridlock and unreliable transit,” a recent post noted. “The results are also a ringing endorsement of the benefits of transit and density, with 45 percent of downtown commuters now choosing transit and 15 percent opting for non-motorized trips (walking, bicycling or teleworking).” …  The Toronto Globe and Mail recently took a look at how Seattle’s decision to replace a viaduct with a tunnel became an “infrastructure nightmare.”
  • Wisconsin: The Milwaukee Common Council last month approved plans for a downtown streetcar, noted Railway Age. The project overcame years of opposition from state and county officials. The council also approved creation of a tax increment financing district that would generate $31 million to help cover the project’s operating costs. The Federal Transit Administration has supported the streetcar with $55 million in funding. A groundbreaking is expected late this year with the streetcar expected to be in operation by mid-2018.

Recent Reports on Factors in Project Selection

  • Spending Restrictions: Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress makes the case in a recent report that because both highways and public transportation don’t pay for themselves through user fees and require significant public subsidies, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to restrict what gas tax revenues can be spent on. “States and the federal government fund a substantial portion of their transportation expenditures by taxing the sale of gasoline and diesel fuel,” he writes. “Highway proponents have successfully enacted prohibitions against using fuel tax revenues to support public transportation and other multimodal projects in 30 states. At the federal level, there is an unofficial rule that no more than 20 percent of fuel tax revenue can support public transportation, also referred to as transit. These prohibitions and unofficial limits hamper the ability of states and metropolitan regions to effectively plan for future needs, as many worthwhile transit and multimodal projects languish due to a lack of funds.”
  • Spending Choices: New Projects vs. Maintenance: Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog USA argued in a post last month that “More Money Won’t Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don’t Change How It’s Spent.” “Throwing more money at the problem overlooks the fatal flaw in American transportation infrastructure policy: The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions,” she writes. “As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm. That’s because the sorry state of American transportation infrastructure is mainly the result of wasteful spending choices, not a lack of funding.” Schmitt says states using 57 percent of their transportation dollars on new construction and just 43 percent to maintain existing road infrastructure is a “recipe for ruin.”
  • Buses vs. Light Rail: A recent New York Times column makes the case that transit agencies are spending millions of dollars to build new light rail systems that are no faster than existing bus service, simply because bus-based public transit has an image problem. The column argues some of those dollars might be better spent on better bus marketing campaigns.
  • Streetcars: The Guardian newspaper looked at why so many American cities are building streetcars. “Despite my skepticism, I can see why such streetcar projects are popular,” writes The Guardian’s Sean Marshall. “They possess an emotional and aesthetic allure that most other forms of city transport just don’t have. Crucially for civic leaders, they also represent a highly visible investment in urban development. Perhaps that is why, despite there being more than a whiff of vanity about some of these projects, the streetcar remains a feature of many American cities. First and foremost, though, transit should be about moving people. The operating streetcar systems I visited in Tampa and Atlanta don’t do this job particularly well, and I don’t have high hopes for Cincinnati’s new project either. In most US cities, meanwhile, the bus services offered are infrequent and unattractive. Ultimately, it is surely far more effective to serve existing transit riders with more frequent buses, than chase new ones by investing in fancy streetcar lines.” … Urbanful asked the question “Are streetcars a fad, or the future?” in a recent piece. “Streetcars don’t seem to be much about transportation at all,” writes Njaimeh Njie. “At least, not the efficient kind. While streetcars carry more passengers and have a longer projected lifespan than buses, many critics have a hard time justifying their expense when they are slower than buses, often go underused and frequently go over budget during construction. … Street cars serve areas that are en vogue, making city cores and popular destinations (affordably) accessible to tourists and residents alike. Still, overwhelmingly, they don’t make it to neighborhoods where better transportation options could improve people’s jobs and education prospects. In theory, the economic prosperity brought about from the development in the streetcar regions should trickle out to other areas of the cities they’re in, but it remains to be seen if that theory will actually hold up.”
  • Public Transit & Federal Funding: The Heritage Foundation, the conservative DC think tank, argues that the Federal Transit Administration should be phased out in a recent compilation of their federal budget recommendations. Kevin DeGood of the left-leaning Center for American Progress offered his thoughts on why that would be a bad idea in a recent piece.
  • Public Transit & Urban Job Growth: According to a new analysis of Census data from the think tank City Observatory: “Downtown employment centers of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are recording faster job growth than areas located further from the city center.” Ben Adler of Grist believes that should create opportunities for expanding urban mass transit systems around the country. The Week magazine meanwhile has a different take on the numbers, arguing that “America’s urban comeback” may be overhyped.  
  • Public Transit, etc.: The Wall Street Journal reported in January that a number of transit agencies around the country were bracing for lower ridership in the wake of lower gas prices. … The Atlantic magazine pondered the question “Why Can’t Public Transit Be Free?” The short answer: it’s wildly expensive and heavily subsidized.
  • Public Transit & Twitter: Wired reported on a recent study in the Journal of the American Planning Association ranking 10 of the largest public transit agencies in the U.S. and Canada by how well they are regarded on Twitter. Vancouver’s Translink, Portland, Oregon’s TriMet and Toronto’s TTC were at the top with the systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New York receiving the harshest tweets.
  • Performance Measurement: Transportation for America has a new report out entitled “Measuring What We Value: Setting Priorities and Evaluating Success in Transportation.”  “Transportation performance measurement shows the public clearly what each increment of infrastructure funding can buy and how some projects provide benefits in some areas while creating challenges in others,” the report said. “The transparency inherent in performance measures can bring the public in to this discussion in a productive way, increasing their confidence and buy-in. But to do this effectively, states, MPOs and localities must be willing to measure what is important to the public even if it is outside of traditional transportation measures. And they must publicly measure themselves, test their assumptions and models, and make changes when they discover gaps between projections and results.”
  • Performance Measurement 2: A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that while the U.S. Department of Transportation has made progress toward moving toward a national performance-based approach since the adoption of MAP-21 in 2012, states and other grantees have reported potential data and cost challenges with implementing such an approach.
  • Complete Streets: Smart Growth America recently announced their “Best Complete Streets Policies of 2014.” The organization notes that 70 jurisdictions adopted such policies last year and a total of 712 jurisdictions now have policies in place, including 30 states, Puerto Rico and DC.
  • Federal Funding for Walking, Biking, Transit: As Streetsblog USA noted recently, a coalition of 50 groups sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the funding for walking, biking and transit.The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card,” writes Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt. “Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.”
  • Gentrification: Governing magazine issued a special report last month on “Gentrification in America.”
  • Commuter Trends: AASHTO recently released the final installment in a series of 16 “Commuting in America” briefs on commuter trends and behavior. The latest brief finds that growth in commuting is slowing due to the aging of the American worker and declines in the number of young people entering the workforce.
  • Future of Cars: The Washington Post’s Wonkblog talked with a University of Virginia historian about “The myth of the American love affair with cars.” Peter Norton argues that the fact that 86 percent of Americans get to work every day in a private car doesn’t mean that the vast majority chose to travel that way, although that statistic is often interpreted that way. It’s often more a factor of the infrastructure being insufficient. “If you locked me in a 7-Eleven for a week, and then after the end of the week unlocked the door and you studied my diet over the previous seven days, then concluded that I prefer highly processed, packaged foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, I would say your study is flawed,” Norton told The Post.
  • Technology & Transportation: Forbes magazine recently highlighted “Six Transportation Trends That Will Change How We Move.” The list included: autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, and collaborative consumption (aka the “shared economy” approach of services like Uber and Lyft).