MAP-21 Provision May Hurt BRT

One of the policy changes in the recently passed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st century (MAP-21) bill may help fixed-rail systems at the expense of BRT. According to Larry Ehl at Transportation Issues Daily:

The change is the criteria for distributing funding through the transit Fixed Guideway program. Under SAFETEA-LU the program provided funds to agencies through a formula based on a variety of transit services like commuter rail, light rail, cable car, and transit on HOV lanes. The new bill eliminates transit on HOV lanes from the Fixed Guideway funding formula, unless the lanes are used exclusively by transit.

This change affects Seattle, Minneapolis, San Jose, Orange County and Phoenix particularly hard. The Seattle transit agencies could collectively lose $20-$25 million in annual funding. This change penalizes states that invest in HOV’s that many buses use to transport people quickly and cleanly. All five metro areas for their respective city sizes exceed the average percentage of commuters who ride transit. These metro areas are being penalized for constructing and operating efficient and effective transit systems.

Who was lobbying for these changes? Senators representing fixed-guideway rail systems in the northeast and Chicago were behind the changes. Eliminating HOV eligibility from the fixed-guideway funds frees up more money to be spent on rail. Certain senior members such as Chuck Schumer of the Senate Banking Committee, which oversees transit, eliminated HOV eligibility. These same Senators sat on the conference negotiating committee and ensured that these cuts became law.

Why did affected cities not object more strenuously? From Larry Ehl:

Additionally, few transit agencies across the country were very impacted by the change. The life or death of an amendment or provision in the Senate usually is directly related to how many states are impacted. In this case, very few states were harmed by making the change, and the advocates were very senior Senators who ended up serving as the bills negotiators. That’s a combination nearly impossible to overcome.

On the positive side, MAP-21 created a new “High Intensity Motorbus State of Good Repair” program that allocates a small amount of funding for transit service based on HOV lane mileage. However, no one is sure exactly how much funding will be provided to affected cities. Currently, it looks as if most of the affected communities, particularly Seattle, will be a net loser in federal transit funds.

All types of federal transit funding are problematic because federal resources are used to support local projects. The most effective transit services receive a great deal of local funding and rely very little on federal resources. But if the federal government is going to provide funding, BRT projects are one of the most worthy types of projects. They have extremely low capital-costs, have much lower operating costs than fixed-rail projects and can be easily moved if necessary. Metro areas can create a BRT network at the same cost as building 2-3 light-rail lines. And BRT is a better match to low-density metro areas. BRT also is less polluting than rail in most metro areas.

Politicians have little interest determining which type of transit is better. Elected officials are almost always running for reelection. One of the problems with Congress is that members look out for themselves first and the nation’s transportation system second. This is one of the reasons that so much federal funding is spent on wasteful local projects. While it is not surprising that politicians are looking after their own interests, it is unfortunate that some cities lose simply because their Senate members are not the most powerful.