Federal Transit Administration Turns Watchdog?

I’ve been critical of the recent move away from cost-effectiveness as a criterion for transit projects, believing that this step represented a shift toward more political decisionmaking. I may have to revise my views of federal transportation policy making, or at least keep my mind open a bit longer, based on what’s playing out in San Francisco.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently put the brakes on a link to Oakland Airport from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) heavy rail system, in a rare rebuke of rail transit projects.

Perhaps more earth shattering, or shifting, has been FTA’s stern criticism of a 1.7 mile, $1.6 billion central subway line by the FTA. Essentially, the letter requires the San Francisco transit agency to show it can continue to operate and maintain the current system before it spends huge amounts on adding capacity to the new system.

“But a recent letter from a top Obama administration transportation official obtained by SF Weekly suggests to critics that the ground-breaking ceremony may have been premature. In order for Muni to obtain $942 million in federal funding essential to the project’s completion, the Federal Transportation Administration has demanded that San Francisco prove it can come up with an extra $164 million in local and state funds, and — harder still — prove that the subway won’t screw up the rest of San Francisco’s bus and light-rail network.

“The letter orders Muni to prove it will keep the rest of its system shipshape, even as it adds a new subway line with its own maintenance and management costs, slashes millions of dollars from its operating budget, and deploys service cuts sure to depress fare-paying ridership.”

This is change we can believe in!

And for the record: Similar criteria should be applied to all transportation projects, including road and highway investments.

There’s no point to adding to a network if the current one can’t be maintained.

Of course, variable road (and transit fare) pricing is the best way out of this conundrum since it creates a sustainable revenue stream for proposed projects and prioritizes future investments based on consumers’ willingness to pay.