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Ray LaHood

If only it were that easy to get our act together

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has some blunt words for Houston about light rail.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likes Houston’s light rail that’s up and running but warns that regional transit officials have squandered opportunities the past decade by not building greater consensus.

“The region needs to get its act together,” LaHood said during a brief question and answer session after an unrelated news conference Wednesday in Houston.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board Chairman Gilbert Garcia conceded a tarnished transit image and political opposition has slowed progress, but the past three years have seen Metro make significant progress.

“It may not go the pace we all want but we’ve gone very far,” he said.

Going further, Garcia said, will take more buy-in from local congressional and statehouse lawmakers.

Though the Main Street line has been a success, and three more lines are under construction, LaHood said the area is coming up short because more hasn’t been done to extend lines to the suburbs where most people live.

He said he spent the morning in Houston talking about projects to extend transit farther from the downtown area. Suburban taxpayers who supported referendums in 2003 and 2012 especially have demonstrated a desire for development, only to have officials shortchange them.

“The fact that these people voted for a referendum and are paying these taxes and have never seen any benefit from it is just not right,” LaHood said.

LaHood, who is stepping down as transportation secretary as soon as a successor is confirmed, said in other cities that have won rail funding, it’s been because everyone from City Hall to Capitol Hill has shown their support for transit funding. In Houston, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s going to hamper getting federal funds.

“If there is not going to be universal agreement then it is not going to happen,” LaHood said.

I certainly agree that as long as we are all rowing in different directions, we’re going to get nowhere, and that’s very much to our detriment. But that’s the reality we live with. Rep. John Culberson is a staunch opponent of the University Line, and has done everything he can to block its construction. While I appreciate Secretary LaHood’s honest assessment, the best thing he could have done to help us all get on the same page would have been to use whatever Republican street cred he had left to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with his former colleague Culberson and tell him to quit being such a jackass. The sad fact is that there is no leverage to be had on Culberson. The voters he answers to agree with him, and if there’s a way for someone else to put pressure on him, I don’t know what it is.

Now to be sure, there’s plenty of responsibility for the excruciatingly slow progress on light rail in Houston that extends beyond Rep. Culberson. Metro itself did a lot of things wrong in the years immediately following the 2003 referendum, including the BRT flipflop, the Buy America fiasco, and just generally being lousy at community engagement and communication. Bill White did a lot of good things as Mayor, but Metro was broken on his watch – it wasn’t until after he’d left office that it became clear just how badly Metro was broken during his tenure – and even if it had been a well-oiled machine, he never spent much time or energy pushing the light rail expansion projects. Commissioners Court, in particular Steve Radack, has been another burdensome obstacle for Metro. Metro is in much better shape now, thanks in large part to the Board that Mayor Parker selected and the tenure of George Greanias as CEO. Radack got what he wanted in the Metro referendum from last year. It would be delightful to get Metro, the city, Commissioners Court, and the entire Congressional delegation all on the same page, but as long as some members of that group are pushing for the opposite of what everyone else wants, I have no idea how to make that happen.

Finally, Secretary LaHood’s comment about suburban taxpayers struck me as a bit odd. For one thing, Metro has spent a ton of money on the park and ride network, which very much serves the suburbs. For another, though I don’t have precinct data from the 2003 referendum in front of me, I’d bet money that the suburban parts of Houston voted against Metro’s 2012 Solutions plan. What he’s talking about sounds a lot like commuter rail, which strictly speaking outside of the US90/Southwest Corridor rail project, which was part of the 2012 Solutions plan and for which work continues, commuter rail is outside Metro’s scope, at least as far as planning and seeking funds go. Still, any viable commuter rail plan will also require everyone to work together in perfect harmony, so in a larger sense it does speak to LaHood’s overall point. Ultimately, we work together or we get nothing done. The message is clear, it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do about it.

There is nothing but highways

More bad policy coming from the Republicans in Congress.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday the House GOP’s highway spending plan is “the worst transportation bill” he’s seen in decades.

“This is the most partisan transportation bill that I have ever seen,” LaHood said in an exclusive interview with POLITICO.

“And it also is the most anti-safety bill I have ever seen. It hollows out our No. 1 priority, which is safety, and frankly, it hollows out the guts of the transportation efforts that we’ve been about for the last three years,” LaHood added. “It’s the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.”

The $260 billion, five-year House bill would cut Amtrak subsidies and increases truck weight limits, leading safety and environment advocates to assail the legislation.

LaHood was a seven-term Republican Congressman before being tapped to be Transportation Secretary, in case you were wondering. What else is rotten with this bill? It screws bicyclists, for one thing.

When the bill goes to the U.S. House floor this week, legislators will consider getting rid of a provision that requires states to dedicate a percentage of highway funds for to build trails for bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as other enhancements.

Under current law, states have to set aside 3 percent of their total highway funds for enhancements, such as hike-and-bike trails, Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Karen Amacker said. Under the new bill, states would decide if, and how much, to spend on such projects.

I’m sure we can all guess what would happen in Texas if that set aside is removed. And if that’s not enough, the bill also screws public transportation.

The U.S. Congress is moving forward with a bill that would strip transit funding out of the Highway Trust Fund, a move that upends an Ronald Reagan-era structure that has meant billions in guaranteed funding for mass transit.

[…]

Here’s why this is a big deal: Money collected from gas taxes, and a handful of other sources, flow directly into a special account in Washington, known as the Highway Trust Fund. Spending out of that account does not require annual appropriations as do expenditures from the general fund.

Instead, the Congress authorizes transportation funding every five years or so and the highway fund spends the money during that time without involvement from the Congress.

By kicking transit out of that system, it leaves any transit spending decisions subject to the same budget and deficit fights that most spending has to contend with, and — transit advocates fear — is really just a way to cut spending for transit.

And again, if that’s what is allowed to happen it’s almost certainly what will happen because it’s the sort of thing that’s easier to do than the alternatives, not to mention the fact that those who depend on public transportation tend to have fewer highly paid lobbyists. The good news is that the Senate is unlikely to go along with this, but it seems unlikely to me that anything will pass that doesn’t have some bad effects. The number of ways in which the 2010 elections were a disaster just keep piling up.

Metro gets more light rail funds

From the US Department of Transit:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced $1.58 billion for 27 transit projects nationwide that will improve public transportation access for millions of Americans while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and curbing air pollution.

“Investing in a modern transportation network is a key part of President Obama’s strategy to win the future by out-building and out-competing the rest of the world,” Secretary LaHood said. “America’s long-term economic success requires investing now in transportation infrastructure capable of moving people and goods more safely, efficiently and quickly than ever before.”

“Our investments in expanding America’s transit networks will not only improve reliable transportation access for communities across the country, they will support construction jobs and economic development,” said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff. “And, a more efficient and reliable transit network means new opportunities for Americans to keep more of their paychecks in their wallets and spend less at the gas pump.”

Twenty-seven transit projects across America are on a path to receive funding under the New Starts program, through which Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides federal support for major capital construction projects such as subways, light rail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit.

Among those projects, all of which you can see here, are Metro’s North Line and Southeast Line, each of which are slated to get $75 million each. Note that this is happening even though the Full Funding Agreement is still pending with the FTA, though as I heard Metro CEO George Greanias say at a Livable Houston presentation in May, you’d think that after giving Metro all this money up till now they’re probably not going to reject the FFA at this point. This announcement comes as Metro gets ready to start laying actual tracks for the Southeast Line, too. Great to see such progress being made. Via Houston Tomorrow.

TxDOT gets more high speed rail money

Still not much, but every little bit counts.

The Texas Department of Transportation will receive $15 million to begin engineering and environmental work on a high-speed rail link between Houston and Dallas, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced [last week].

Though it could be a decade or more before Houstonians can reach North Texas on a train topping 150 mph, rail advocates say the grant of federal stimulus funds is an important acknowledgment that the state’s congested highways alone cannot accommodate Texas’ growth.

“This is really big news for Texas because it connects the two biggest cities, and it’s not just a study to analyze whether that corridor makes sense — this decision admits that if there is a corridor in Texas that makes sense, Houston-Dallas/Fort Worth is that corridor,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the former CEO of a transportation trade group.

The grant was part of $2 billion the Federal Railroad Administration awarded to 22 high-speed inter-city passenger rail projects in 15 states. The funds became available after they had been rejected by Florida, having been turned away earlier by Wisconsin and Ohio, said Bill Glavin, director of TxDOT’s rail division. The Republican governors in those states said they could not afford the possible local costs associated with the work.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry will have no such option. The grant stipulates the states awarded the funding cannot return it, Glavin said.

[…]

The grant will fund studies to determine the environmental impact of construction and to pick a route, Glavin said. The work is expected to take 24 to 30 months.

Sweet. I think all of us who would like to see high speed rail in Texas owe thank you notes to the petty wingnut governors of those other states. The irony of us being the beneficiary of that is just killing me. But hey, I’ll take it. Houston Tomorrow has more.

Metro in the President’s budget

They did all right.

Houston Metro’s expansion is getting a $200 million boost in Obama’s budget request to Congress. The money for the North Corridor and the Southeast Corridor projects is $50 million more than the $150 million set aside by Obama in his last two budget proposals.

The Metro project is part of a wider bid by the administration to upgrade transportation infrastructure nationwide so that 80 percent of Americans have “convenient access” to a high-speed passenger rail system within 25 years.

Metro is pretty happy about this as you can see in their press release. This isn’t the final budget, of course, and much can happen between now and its adoption, but this is a reminder that the President considers transit to be a priority, so just because some Republicans want rail defunded doesn’t mean it will happen.

I should add that I had the same opportunity that Neil and several other bloggers had yesterday to visit with Metro board members (Board President Gilbert Garcia, board member Christof Spieler, and board member Allen Watson), CEO George Greanias, and numerous other Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. It’s an impressive facility and deserves a post of its own, but I’m bringing it up here because I had the chance in the conversation we had to clear up a couple of things from this story. One is that the money being appropriated for the North and Southeast lines counts towards the $900 million New Starts grant for those lines, though the full funding agreement is still pending the rebid process for rail cars (for which notice went out over the weekend, according the Greanias) and some other procedural matters; if all goes well, it should be in hand before the end of the year. You don’t get the full grant all at once, you get it in portions as you proceed with construction, with the last check usually coming in after completion. Having the full funding grant agreement means you’re not subject to the whims of the appropriations process, but the fact that Metro got even more money from that this time around is a strong sign they’re back in the FTA’s good graces. And now we have some confirmation of that.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said this afternoon that the Obama administration would not have proposed $200 million for Houston light rail projects “if we didn’t feel like we were getting to the finish line.”

[…]

Last year, the city of Houston replaced five of the nine Metro board members, who in turn brought in new CEO George Greanias. Rogoff called the FTA’s communications with Metro “honest, straightforward, productive dialogue.”

“They have been very willing partners in rectifying the problems that we identified in our audit,” Rogoff said. Metro canceled the contract with the Spanish firm and is preparing a new procurement plan for FTA approval.

Metro has proceeded on the two rail lines at half speed as it awaits the full funding grant agreement. Rogoff said he expects that agreement to be finalized by the end of fiscal year 2012 but would not be more specific.

That’s genuinely good news and a testament to the hard work they’ve been doing at Metro since Greanias and the new board were put in place. Hair Balls has more.

The President’s budget, while it contains a lot of funding for transit projects, does not have anything to do with the University line, which has been qualified to receive funding but has not gone through the competitive process yet. In addition, Congress must authorize the next transportation bill before there is any further funding for New Starts. That’s where things could potentially get dicey with the slash-and-burn elements of the Republican Congress. That said, Houston Tomorrow notes that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is optimistic that Congress will pass a “sweeping bill to authorize funding for road and transit” by August. So we’ll see.

Overall the transportation budget has some good things, like an emphasis on safety and a prioritization of repairs to existing infrastructure, but it avoids the question of paying for it with an increase to the gas tax. That’s a discussion that really can’t be avoided.

Oh, and one more thing: Remember that settlement with CAF, the Spanish rail car builder that the old Metro violated Buy America with? Metro was to receive $14 million from CAF as part of that settlement. Greanias told us that as of that morning, the funds were now sitting in Metro’s coffers. So again, it’s been a pretty decent week for them.

We’ll take it if you don’t want it

Dallas would like the FTA to know that they will gladly take any federal streetcar funds that Fort Worth doesn’t want.

That’s the message the Regional Transportation Council, with the support of Dallas leaders, is sending to the Federal Transit Administration this month in the wake of Fort Worth’s decision to shelve its streetcar plan.

“We’re going to write a letter, and we hope the FTA sees it our way,” said Dallas City Council member Linda Koop, who is also a member of the RTC.

[…]

Dallas won its own $23 million grant back in February, when [Transportation Secretary Ray] LaHood announced that the government would help build a loop beginning at Union Station and traveling across the Trinity to Oak Cliff, near Methodist Dallas Health Center and back.

Dallas leaders, working with the RTC and DART, soon must send the FTA a clear plan for how it would spend the money and where the additional $15.8 million in required local funds will come from.

Koop said those funds have been identified and that the $38.8 million project will proceed alongside a more ambitious effort to develop a full network of downtown streetcars. That system will likely connect to the soon-to-be-upgraded M-Line trolleys that run between Uptown and the Arts District, as well as tie into downtown light-rail service.

Some of the money earmarked for the starter line to Oak Cliff will pay for planning that can also lay the groundwork for that larger effort, Koop and others said. In all, the larger project could easily cost more than $100 million.

The RTC is also soliciting private funds to get this going, which is something that will be worth watching. All I know is that I felt this same way about high-speed rail funds after watching Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin turn their noses up at them, but sadly Texas didn’t get a piece of it. I wish Dallas better luck.

Texas gets a teeny bit of high speed rail money

It’s a step forward, but a very very small step.

High-speed rail in Texas, long left for dead, is likely to regain a pulse today when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announces a $5.6 million grant to plan a passenger rail line from Oklahoma City to the Rio Grande.

The money is part of $2.4 billion in federal grants to be unveiled today for high-speed rail projects, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said.

The $5.6 million grant, announced Wednesday by the office of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, would pay for what is expected to be a 42-month study that would identify a preferred route on existing or new tracks, estimate capital and annual operating costs, project ridership and evaluate environmental effects of passenger rail.

Building high-speed rail from the Texas-Mexico border to Oklahoma, however, would cost billions of dollars. Policymakers have not identified a source for the money.

The grant is only half of what the Texas Department of Transportation requested for what it estimated would be a $14 million study. TxDOT will contribute $2.8 million from money the agency had approved for the Lone Star Rail District, the agency that hopes someday to build commuter rail between Georgetown and San Antonio.

The $11.2 million grant application did not mention any contribution from Oklahoma.

TxDOT had requested an additional $8.1 million to study passenger rail from Austin to Houston and from Houston to Dallas. But Sarah Dohl , Doggett’s communications director, said the $5.6 million is all the state will get.

Better than nothing, but still. Don’t spend it all in one place.

Fort Worth gets streetcar funds

Good for them, though they’re not quite ready to jump on it yet.

A downtown streetcar loop could be in Fort Worth’s near future, but the City Council has some serious issues to consider first.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Thursday that an “urban circulator” project submitted by the city and Fort Worth Transit Authority was selected for almost $25 million in federal funding.

But Councilman Jungus Jordan said a feasibility study on the project won’t be finished until September or October, and the council has other projects with higher priority than the 2.5-mile streetcar loop.

[…]

The project’s selection for part of $293 million in federal funding means that the city must now apply to the Urban Circulator Grant Program, said Paul Griffo, a Transportation Department spokesman.

Jordan said that application can’t be made until after Council discussions that won’t begin until November, and could take weeks.

I presume the money will still be there when they get around to making the application. Some background on their plans can be found here and here. A full list of what got approved by the FTA is here; Dallas and Brownsville are on the list, though their projects are much smaller than Fort Worth’s, at least in terms of the size of the grant. A statement from State Sen. Wendy Davis, who was previously a Fort Worth City Council member, is here. I wish them well in getting this completed.

“Committed” to rail

Well, it’s better than not being commited.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today that his agency is continuing a review of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light rail funding application, but he declined to say when the $900 million grant might be finalized.

“We are committed to this project,” LaHood said after delivering the keynote speech at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s annual meeting at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

Asked specifically if he expects the grant to be executed this summer, as Metro officials have indicated, LaHood demurred, saying only that the Federal Transit Administration is performing necessary due diligence on the project.

“We’re looking at a lot of documents,” said LaHood, who discussed recent events at Metro in a meeting Tuesday night with Mayor Annise Parker.

That’s not really telling us anything we didn’t already know – they’re looking at it, they’ll get back to us when they’re ready. It’s good news in the sense that the original assumption was that we’re getting the funds, and there’s nothing to indicate anything has changed. Of course, if anything had changed, I doubt Secretary LaHood would have said anything anyway. It’s still possible that the answer could be “yeah, you’ll get the money, just not this year”. Who knows? We’ll find out soon enough.

UPDATE: And now Lisa Falkenberg’s column has me all pessimistic.

The transition team report on Metro

In addition to naming new Metro board members, today was the day for Mayor Parker’s transition team to give its report on Metro. Here’s the Chron story about their report. I’m going to focus on one piece of it:

[James] Moncur, a former deputy city controller and former Metro finance employee, said the attorney general’s office has told the transition team it is unwilling to allow Metro to pledge certain federal grant revenues to help the agency repay the bonds.

The state agency believes counting on the continuation of these grants at a time of growing federal deficits is imprudent, Moncur said. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office has told the Houston Chronicle that it is in preliminary talks with Metro about the bonds but hasn’t disclosed the substance of the talks.

Without these funds, Moncur said, it’s doubtful Metro could support enough debt to build all five of its planned light rail lines by 2015. Funding for the three lines under construction — the North, East End and Southeast lines — seems secure, Moncur said.

The attorney general’s office, which must approve the bonds, “is OK with the three-line scenario,” Moncur said. “For the five lines, it’s kind of borderline.”

I was in a conference call with Moncur and George Greanias yesterday in which all of this information was previewed. (*) The grants in question are called 5307 grants, and it’s not clear to me why exactly the AG’s office has an issue with this. Moncur told us that Metro wants to pledge the revenue from these funds, about $50 million per year, for the life of the bonds, which is 30 or 40 years. The grants are recurring, and Metro has received them regularly. Obviously, people are concerned about the federal deficit, and it’s certainly possible that something like this could be affected by future budget-trimming efforts, but in the absence of any specifics, it has the feel of politics to me. I certainly could be wrong about that – we really don’t know much about what the AG and Metro’s bond lawyers have been saying to each other – and I suppose over that long a time frame anything can happen, but I don’t quite get the hangup here. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon.

This isn’t the only issue. As the story notes, Metro is making some assumptions that Greanias termed “optimistic” about sales tax revenues and operating costs, and it is also assuming future fare increases. The former is beyond anyone’s control, and the latter will surely run into political resistance. Overall, I feel better about this situation now than I did a week or so ago, and I do believe there is a commitment to getting the U lines built, just perhaps not on the schedule I’d want. But it ain’t gonna be easy, and I don’t envy the new Board the task of making it work.

Other items that came up: The idea of maybe reducing the fares seems like a non-starter – if you are committed to building the rail lines, then as Moncur put it “Eliminating fares would sink the rail program.” I asked about whether there was merit to the assertion that the 2003 referendum would not allow for Metro to float this $2.6 billion bond package without another referendum. The said they did not do a legal analysis, but they assumed that Metro’s bond attorney, who helped write the referendum, knew what he was doing. They said the economist Metro uses for their sales tax projections is Barton Smith, and that the FTA reviews those projections as well before they make any grants.

That’s what I’ve got for now. I’m going to need to read through the transition team’s reports for myself, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say as I do. Texas Watchdog has more.

(*) – I missed the beginning of the call due to bad cellphone reception, but the Chron’s Mike Snyder very kindly took notes and shared them with me, so I was able to get everything out of the call. My sincere thanks to Mike for his generosity.

Parker reaffirms commitment to light rail

This is what I want to see.

[Mayor Annise] Parker’s letter regarding this week’s Metro board meeting was sent on the eve of her trip to Washington, where she said she would reassure U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that her administration wants to see five new light-rail lines built in Houston.

“I just want them to know that in spite of what might seem to be some turmoil at Metro, and despite what’s clearly going to happen with a new management team and a new board at Metro, is that Houston remains firmly committed to light rail,” Parker said.

The mayor said she intends to announce her five new appointees, including a new chairman, after she returns from Washington on Thursday — the same day as Metro’s March board meeting. Parker has said Wilson also should be replaced.

Her letter asks the board to defer action on any items that would obligate Metro to substantial financial commitments or assign any of its operating authority to a third-party vendor. Parker said she expects her appointees to be confirmed by City Council prior to the board’s April meeting.

It’s a good start, and if one assumes that a large part of the concern over Metro’s finances is that they’ve counted too much on federal dollars that haven’t been appropriated yet, it goes a long way towards offering reassurance that the two U lines will get built. I have faith in Mayor Parker and I don’t doubt her desire to see these lines built, but it’s always nice to hear the words.

It’s our own fault we missed out on SUPERTRAIN funds

So says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“If Texas had had its act together, it would have gotten some high-speed rail money,” the Obama administration Cabinet official told reporters.

Thirty-one states shared $8 billion in rail grants from the 2009 economic stimulus package last week. The only money Texas received was a $4 million grant for planning a project in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“We based our decision on where the money could be well-spent and jump-start opportunities around the country,” LaHood said.

“Unless a state or region has its act together, with (local) money, with a good plan that connects things, they’re not going to be in the high-speed rail business,” he said.

Well, let’s be honest. If we’re going to have a chance in the next round, we’re going to need a different Governor, because this is not a priority for the current one. And we’ll need some changes in the culture at TxDOT. Getting stuff through the Lege is always a challenge, and the 2011 session will be a lousy time to try to fund new projects, but beyond those things I don’t think there are any unique obstacles there. In other words, it’s going to take a lot of things going right, and even then it’ll be hard. But other than that, piece of cake.

The SUPERTRAIN passes us by

We knew we weren’t going to get much in the way of funding for high speed rail in Texas, but it still kinda stings to see just how little we got.

The $3.75 million that the Lone Star State will receive is a sliver of the more than $8 billion distributed, mostly to states that have plans and other funding ready to go.

The goal is to build a coordinated national high-speed-rail network that could help relieve road and air congestion. Plans range from upgrading Amtrak tracks to help trains move at more than 100 mph to building elevated tracks for European-style bullet trains, which could shuttle travelers across long distances at more than 185 mph.

Long-standing plans call for the high-speed network to pass through the Metroplex, linking North Texas with St. Louis and Chicago to the north and San Antonio to the south.

Let’s just say we’re a long, long way from that. The DMN puts it in context.

Consider what others are doing. Take Florida, which has, like Texas, a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature:

  • In October, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Florida lawmakers to get their “act together” if they wanted stimulus money Congress authorized for high-speed rail.
  • In December, those lawmakers passed a high-speed rail bill in special session to address governance and funding.
  • Thursday, President Barack Obama went to Florida with Amtrak-riding veteran Joe Biden to announce a $1.25 billion grant to develop Tampa-to-Orlando service for 168-mph trains.

In California, voters had already embraced bullet-train development by approving a $10 billion stake in financing. Illinois, aside from having close friends in Washington, had pledged support to modernize current Chicago-to-St. Louis service.

In the rail sweepstakes, no smart money was on Texas – certainly not after Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in Austin this month that there “has been no central vision, no common vision for rail in Texas.”

With that assessment, we agree.

Ouch. I don’t know when the next opportunity will come, but I sure hope we can do better than this.

Department of Transportation makes it easier to do transit projects

Good news.

In a dramatic change from existing policy, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today 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.”

The change will apply to how the Federal Transit Administration evaluates major transit projects going forward. In making funding decisions, the FTA will now evaluate the environmental, community and economic development benefits provided by transit projects, as well as the congestion relief benefits from such projects.

“This new approach will help us do a much better job of aligning our priorities and values with our transit investments” said FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. “No longer will we ignore the many benefits that accrue to our environment and our communities when we build or expand rail and bus rapid transit systems.”

FTA will soon initiate a separate rulemaking process, inviting public comment on ways to appropriately measure all the benefits that result from such investments.

As noted by Houston Politics, the main way this is likely to affect Metro is with the University line, as the others have their funding lined up one way or another. If we’re lucky, when Metro is in a position to think about further expansions, the same rules will be in effect. On the down side, as the DC Streetsblog notes, this didn’t increase the amount of federal funds available. That still needs to be done by Congress, and who knows how that will go. But this is a good step in the right direction. Yglesias, neoHouston, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

Texas applies for SUPERTRAIN funds

Continuing my series of SUPERTRAIN-funding-request posts, here’s the DMN transportation blog on the status of Texas’ request.

It took longer than I expected, but the Texas Department of Transportation has shared its preliminary application for its share of the $8 billion and change the federal government is handing out for high-speed passenger rail projects.

Texas wants more than $1.9 billion of the money, and has submitted more than a dozen projects as part of its “pre-application” — a required step that was due midnight Friday. Final requests, with update numbers, are due Aug. 24. (A press release with details of 18 projects for which Texas is seeking funds is available here: txdot preapplication 071309.pdf)

Texas is asking for $1.7 billion to speed development of a super-fast passenger train linking Dallas to Austin to San Antonio, and with a spur to Houston.

Federal guidelines for the funds make it unlikely that such a big amountwill be awarded to Texas, given how little preliminary work — such as environmental studies, feasibility reviews or right of way acquisition — has been done on the bullet train proposal. Still, TxDOT spokeswoman Karen Amacker said today, “it never hurts to ask,” and noted that the guidelines for the grants released in June are themselves in draft form.

No, it doesn’t hurt, and with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood saying that they’ll consider proposals that aren’t as far along as some others, who knows, we may get lucky. Here’s hoping. The DMN gave this an editorial nod on Friday, and the Transportation blog has more.

It’s only a negative when it’s for something I don’t like

Matt Yglesias writes about one of my favorite people.

Randall O’Toole is a relentless advocate for highways and automobile dependency in the United States. Consequently, I don’t agree with him about very much. But the thing I consistently find most bizarre about him, is that the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have both agreed to agree with O’Toole that his support for highways and automobile dependency is a species of libertarianism. For example, O’Toole whines a bunch about how Ray LaHood wants to spend less money on highways and more on transportation alternatives before denouncing this agenda as “central planning.”

Central planning, of course, is the reverse of libertarianism. So if promoting alternative transportation is central planning, then building highways everywhere must be freedom! But of course in the real world building highways is also central planning. The Long Island Expressway is not a free market phenomenon. The Interstate Highway System as a whole reflects, yes, planning. That’s how it works. And beyond the interstates, American cities made a collective decision in the early part of the twentieth century to totally reconfigure their streets so as to become more convenient for car traffic—they’d be paved in an auto-friendly way, and the streets divided into a (larger) cars-only portion and a (smaller) people-only portion. That’s planning. It’s true that proposals to rebalance and make more space for buses and bikes and streetcars and pedestrians is a sort of central planning. But so is the alternative.

It’s just a field that, intrinsically, requires a lot of planning. The question is about what kinds of plans to make.

I don’t think I can add anything to this, except perhaps to note that maybe this is where some of the fervor for privatized toll roads comes from. Even there, of course, it’s not like your private toll road building firms were the ones deciding where the roads would be going. It was central planning all the way down to the point where construction and ultimately operations were to be handed off. Yet somehow that sort of thing never bothers the Randal O’Tooles of the world. One can only wonder why that may be.

Green and Gonzalez get plaudits for climate change bill

After all the haranging I did on this, the least I can do is to note this.

The Obama administration joined environmentalists Friday in heaping praise on Texas Democratic Reps. Charlie Gonzalez and Gene Green for helping climate change legislation win approval by a congressional committee.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the pair “courageous” for joining 30 other Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee in voting for the roughly 1,000-page bill late Thursday.

With a relatively close vote of 33-25, the support from Green and Gonzalez was key — one reason panel Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., spent weeks negotiating with them on a plan to cushion refiners from the proposal’s financial cost.

Waxman’s agreement to give refiners 2 percent of an annual pool of valuable pollution permits helped seal the deal.

Both lawmakers represent congressional districts with major refining operations. Green’s territory includes refining plants along the Houston ship channel. The headquarters of refiners Tesoro Corp. and Valero Energy Corp., are in San Antonio.

Gonzalez also secured changes designed to ensure a San Antonio power plant would eventually get some of the free permits — even though it won’t go online until late 2010.

Their support — despite the oil industry’s broad criticism of the climate change plan — could sway other oil-patch Democrats to back the bill when it is debated by the full House later this year.

Whatever the flaws of this bill, it’s vastly better than doing nothing, and it has enough support from environmentalist groups and progressive leaders to count it as a big win, with the hope for more improvement in the future. For that, I thank Reps. Green and Gonzalez for their work. May they inspire some of their “centrist” brothers and sisters in the Senate to get on board as well.

Here comes the SUPERTRAIN

Nice.

President Barack Obama on Thursday highlighted his ambition for the development of high-speed passenger rail lines in at least 10 regions, expressing confidence in the future of train travel even as he acknowledged that the American rail network, compared to the rest of the world’s, remains a caboose.

With clogged highways and overburdened airports, economic growth was suffering, Mr. Obama said from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, shortly before leaving for a weekend trip to Latin America.

“What we need, then, is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century,” he said, “a system that reduces travel times and increases mobility, a system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity, a system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs.”

Lots more on the White House blog, with a bigger picture of the map here. I think this has a lot of potential to reduce congestion on highways and at airports, as rail travel is very well suited to medium range trips. Flying times may be a little faster, but when you factor in the need to go through security, it evens out quite a bit. Trains can come into town centers as well, making them easier to get to as well as accessible by public transportation. And while it would be ideal, as expressed by President Obama in his intro statement, for people to be able to step off of a high speed train and onto a light rail or subway line, there’s no reason why rental cars couldn’t be available as well.

If you look at that map, you might notice an obvious omission in the routes. As Yglesias says:

It seems strange to build so much track in Texas and not manage to link Houston with Dallas.

It’s a good thing, then, that there’s talk of building our own SUPERTRAIN that would provide a connection between Dallas and Houston. Perhaps the powers that are working on that vision can tap into this one as well. And hey, as long as I’m wishcasting, let’s throw in a Galveston connection, too. Seems to me if there was ever a time to make this happen, it’s now.

Finally, I should note that the House budget includes $182 million for the rail relocation and improvement fund, which will support the bonding of about $1.8 billion in rail projects. A press release from State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who authored the amendment that appropriated these funds, is beneath the fold.

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