Archive for the ‘Federal Transit Administration issues’ Category

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How soon to get Austin’s urban rail on track after Nov. 4th?

11 October 2014
Graphic: LifeHacker.com

Either the Highland-Riverside urban rail plan or a Guadalupe-Lamar plan will need several years to be ready for federal approval. Graphic: LifeHacker.com

By Dave Dobbs

How quickly can Austin get another rail proposal on the ballot if Proposition One fails on Nov. 4th? Pass or fail, I think any rail proposition that would be ready for federal funding is at least three years out — i.e., 2018, considering that the new 10-1 council gets up and running early in 2015.

If Proposition One passes, the new council would have to deal with the political mandate of $400 million of road funding — most likely, in Certificates of Obligation (COs). And given the nature of COs, meant for emergencies, not for general obligation (GO) situations, the oxygen in council chambers is going to be consumed as new council members (a) hear from the public pro and con and (b) recognize that large city indebtedness limits their ability to expend funds for many other needed things (particularly their own priorities and campaign promises), while at the same time setting the stage for even more debt for a controversial rail project that will surely necessitate giving up a quarter cent of Capital Metro’s sales tax they now collect.

Assuming that the issue of COs could be settled in a year’s time and the city could begin selling bonds to fund the detailed planning necessary to qualify for federal funding, it will still take two to three years for the federally mandated steps necessary to get back into line for federal funding. Remember, when Project Connect switched the destination from Mueller to Highland, the current project on the ballot lost its place in line. (Council members knew this when they placed Proposition One on the ballot.) Considering that federal funding is highly competitive, with something like 50 U.S. cities doing some kind of urban rail planning in pursuit of federal dollars, Austin’s current project (supposedly with 18,000 daily riders) for $1.4 billion is simply not cost-effective or cost-competitive.

Now if Project Connect still has some funds left from the $5 million allocated from CAMPO’s SMP-MM grant and what the Council provided in 2013, and Prop. One passes, then rail planning for Highland/Riverside could go on while council thrashes about trying to deal with the $400 million in COs. Nonetheless, it would still be 2018 before any Project Connect plan would be ready for federal consideration and the ridership and the project won’t be any better.

If Proposition One fails, then the new 10-1 council will be able to get organized and set its own priorities, one of which would be to disconnect Project Connect, along with its funding, and then assess where the community goes with Capital Metro, transit priorities, rail planning, and what role the city, itself, has in all this. Hopefully, any funding that is left from Project Connect could be held in abeyance until Council agrees to set up a new public study process that has real public input and gives public stakeholders ownership. Right now, Capital Metro has been so poorly used by politicians and the private political agendas the politicians represent, that we need to have a community discussion about what transit’s role is in the future and who does what.

The city and the transit authority, after all, have to agree upon how to use the limited assets we call the public streets. We have to decide whether streets are for people (pedestrians, bikes, and transit) or sewers for cars. While some of our elected officials piously claim we can’t give up automobile travel lanes for rail on Guadalupe and Lamar, the CAMPO plan (its Capital Metro elements) projects dedicated bidirectional busways for MetroRapid on all of the best potential rail routes in the city by 2025.

Overhead view of MetroRail on Main St. at Preston. Photo: Houston Metro.

Houston’s MetroRail light rail transit system runs on dedicated tracks on Main St., re-allocated from traffic lanes. Photo: Houston Metro.

Given the undeniable need, now becoming patently obvious to most of the attentive public, that something must be done in the core along the Guadalupe/North Lamar corridor, the new Council will be under enormous pressure from most of the Project Connect supporters and the loyal opposition pro-rail supporters to begin anew looking at a rail proposal that has the right combination of route, ridership, capital cost, and O&M numbers that gets the most bang for the buck. Again, we’re looking at 2018 before any plan could be completed and eligible for Federal Transit Administration funding.

The difference between passing and failing is, of course, funding — i.e., Austin’s local match for a federal grant. While both Proposition One proponents and the loyal opposition pro-rail supporters agree that a local match is essential, the contention that a November bond failure means “another 14 years” before we can visit the issue again, or that a 10-1 council will be unable to agree on where to begin, are arguments for people with an agenda and those who are flying backward to see where we’ve been. ■

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Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar

1 February 2014
MetroRapid bus (left) and simulation of urban rail (right). Actual FTA view expresses openness to consider replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail in North Lamar corridor. Photo: L. Henry; simulation: COA.

MetroRapid bus (left) and simulation of urban rail (right). Actual FTA view expresses openness to consider replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail in North Lamar corridor. Photo: L. Henry; simulation: COA.

On December 12th, in the course of a contentious meeting, the Austin City Council endorsed Project Connect’s recommendation to pursue “high-capacity transit” in East Riverside and a narrow swath of area mostly northeast of the UT campus, dubbed the “Highland sub-corridor”. (See City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead.) Present at this meeting was a long queue of critics of the proposal, and proponents of an alternative urban rail route in the “backbone” West Campus-Guadalupe-Lavaca corridor.

Over previous months, Project Connect and its partisans had repeatedly insisted that Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – because it was funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – was an impenetrable barrier to urban rail. In recent days, the argument had intensified, with solemn declarations that even raising the issue of replacing MetroRapid bus with urban rail might so incense FTA that all future federal funding could be jeopardized.

Thus, in this context, earlier in the December 12th Council meeting, anticipating a barrage of criticism over the rejection of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, Councilman Mike Martinez (also chairman of Capital Metro) took the opportunity to make a special announcement, evidently intended to steal a march on Guadalupe-Lamar proponents. Word from the FTA had just come in, he intoned, that the agency considered Metro Rapid an absolutely “permanent” investment, and therefore a daunting obstacle to its replacement by rail.

From the City of Austin transcript, the following are Councilman Martinez’s remarks (for readability, edited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation):

I wanted to read a response from FTA that Capital Metro received this afternoon in a meeting with them in Fort Worth. This is an FTA official that … his response to the question about the high-capacity transit that is already going in, the BRT in the Lamar corridor.

His response was: BRT in the North Lamar corridor is a priority transit project. The project was supported by the region through CAMPO. Capital Metro and FTA signed a contract to this effect. FTA sees their investment as permanent.

It is important to consider that there are many demands for federal funds on new starts and small starts [projects]. and FTA made a permanent investment in this [corridor]. If Capital Metro were to come back to FTA and indicate there is a change in priorities or new need in this corridor, Capital Metro, CAMPO and the community would need to go through the entire planning process again to show that urban rail is the highest priority for this corridor.

That to me is a pretty definitive statement from FTA that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to go back through the process and receive new start money in that corridor. They view the current investment as permanent.

City of Austin transcript excerpt with Councilmember Mike Martinez's Dec. 12th remarks on FTA, MetroRapid, and urban rail for North Lamar. Screenshot: L. Henry.

City of Austin transcript excerpt with Councilmember Mike Martinez’s Dec. 12th remarks on FTA, MetroRapid, and urban rail for North Lamar. Screenshot: L. Henry.

While the FTA statement, as read orally, seemed less of a definitive and absolute rejection of an urban rail alternative in the Lamar corridor than Councilman Martinez portrayed it, as it turned out, further examination or evaluation of the statement was not immediately possible because a printed copy was not made available to the public for scrutiny. Instead, it took a Public Information Request by Scott Morris of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation, and over 40 days, before the actual FTA statement was made available, in the original form provided to Councilman Martinez.

The FTA’s views, as communicated orally to Capital Metro’s representative Ken Cartwright, are summarized by Capital Metro in an internal document available by download from ARN. As this document indicates, Capital Metro raised the issue: “We have been approached about the possibility of putting an urban rail investment in the North Lamar corridor where we already have the BRT investment.”

FTA’s oral (“verbal”) response is summarized:

The Austin community decided that bus rapid transit in the North Lamar corridor was a priority and the next need. The project was supported by the region through CAMPO. Capital Metro and FTA signed a contract to this effect. FTA sees their investments as permanent. However, if the Austin community were to come back to FTA and indicate that there has been a change in priorities or a new need in this corridor, FTA would consider the request. Before making this request, Capital Metro and the community would need to go through the entire planning process again to show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor. It is important to consider that there are many demands on federal funds for New Starts and Small Starts projects, and FTA has already made a permanent investment in this corridor.

Of particular interest is FTA’s assurance that “FTA would consider the request” for urban rail if Capital Metro and the Austin community were able “to show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor.”

FTA's actual statement, summarized in CMTA memo provided to Councilmember Martinez. Screenshot from PDF by L. Henry.

FTA’s actual statement, summarized in CMTA memo provided to Councilmember Martinez. Screenshot from PDF by L. Henry.

Clearly, the FTA’s actual statement on the issue of replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail is considerably more encouraging than the interpretation verbalized by Councilmember Martinez during the highly polemical Dec. 12th City Council debate on rejecting the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and endorsing Project Connect’s recommendation for a less centrally located route for “high-capacity transit”. This basically corroborates the position expressed by Austin Rail Now.

See:

MetroRapid bus service should be a precursor to urban rail, not an obstacle!

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Bottom line: FTA’s actual statement offers a far more propitious prospect for FTA support of urban rail in this crucial core-city corridor.