Much as I like the decision by Metro to go all light rail all the time, it doesn’t come without risk. Federal funding is not guaranteed, so we may be back where we started, when the BRT decision was first made.
Changes in federal rules for evaluating transit projects have improved the cost-effectiveness scores for Metro’s planned North and Southeast lines above the minimum levels for funding, Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson announced last week.
As a result, he said, Metro no longer will need to resort to the less expensive alternative of Bus Rapid Transit and can build the light rail that voters approved and were promised.
But because the rule changes affect all applicants, the competitive position of Metro’s projects might not improve. If there were not enough federal dollars for so-called New Starts projects to fund them all, some would not make the cut.
Ron Fisher, director of project planning at the Federal Transit Administration, said the annual sum for New Starts has held steady at near $1.5 billion for several years.
“We can’t say what will happen in the future,” Fisher said. “The history is that once you have an acceptable rating, you are very likely to get funding.”
Federal funding is not an issue for the Uptown and East End lines, which Metro plans to pay for itself, backed by booming sales tax revenue. The University line always had the kind of ridership and cost projections to qualify for federal dollars, Metro says.
Among the FTA rule changes, Metro says, is a willingness to consider “rail bias” — that some people will ride rail and not buses even if cost and travel times are identical.
A second change, according to Slaughter, is that Metro may now forecast ridership in light of local transportation projects planned through 2035, vastly extending the previous planning horizon of 2011.
That means that the two lines would be evaluated as parts of a coordinated system that would include five light rail lines and several planned commuter rail lines, Slaughter said.
The third change was not an FTA rule, she said.
“We were able to show the Houston-Galveston Area Council that there were zones along corridors where population and employment will be greater than what they had estimated,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter said the FTA will get updated proposals Nov. 9.
I’ll feel better when the money is in hand. It all sounds good, but as long as certain Congressmen have it in for Metro, all bets are off.
On a side note, it would be nice to hear more about what projects Metro is kicking around for 2035. One thing I hope they’re looking at is all the dense development going up along and near Washington Avenue. I think that would make an excellent corridor for a rail line, connecting to Main Street on the east, the Uptown line on the west, and perhaps providing access to Memorial Park in between. I’m sure it’d be 20 years off if it’s even a twinkle in Frank Wilson’s eye now, but I have hope anyway.