FTA proposes shifting the focus of transit investment evaluations from commute time reduction to ridership and other metrics

The Federal Transit Administration’s proposed changes to the way it evaluates transit investment  funding under the New Starts and Small Starts programs would shift the focus from travel time reduction to projected ridership and the cost per trip. Under the proposed changes, the project’s effects on air pollution, energy use, greenhouse-gas emissions and safety and social equity impacts, including affordable housing and job creation, would also be considered.

As noted by Matthew Yglesias in his recent article, the current rule’s focus on travel time reduction has biased new mass-transit construction in favor of projects which run parallel to a congested highway and feature large parking lots. Projects in dense urban area, which may have attracted more riders and been more cost effective, may not have been selected for funding because riders walking to and from station may actually increase travel time over driving. The proposed rule would correct this disparity.

However, several potential shortcomings remain. Under the proposed rule, environmental impact analysis for transit projects would use the current methodology, which requires that each segment be considered separately, rather than all at once. According to Sarah Campbell, at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, this adds considerable time and expense to the process and makes transit projects less attractive for private financing than highway projects, for which environmental impact assessment can be completed more easily.

A metric assessing whether there are policies in place to maintain or increase the share of affordable housing in the project corridor is also problematic. Yglesias notes that this could lead to projects which serve smaller numbers of potential riders being selected. If funding were on ridership projections alone, dense residential development near transit stations would increase the overall supply of housing near transit, which might increase the chances that all income groups would find something in their price range.