New 'Livability' Guidelines for Transit Projects: What They Do and Don't Change

Lost in the shuffle of Haiti and the Massachusetts Senate race was an interesting development in federal transport policy. Advocates of public transportation and sustainable transportation development have had a frustrating few months, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood threw them a bone Wednesday with new guidelines for spending. In plain English, the decision-making process for large projects is no longer just about money—the cost-benefit analysis will now include intangibles that improve "livability."

In a nutshell, the criteria on which the Federal Transit Administration judges major ventures will change to focus on how projects affect the environment, potential economic development opportunities, and relief of congestion. That replaces a Bush administration directive that mandated evaluation based on commute time compared with cost, which LaHood suggests in a blog post will allow useful projects that have previously been 86'd—including streetcars and light rail—to now go forward, in keeping with the Department of Transportation's focus on those two modes. For its part, the FTA characterized the change as "dramatic."

On his Fast Lane blog, LaHood wrote:

Look, everywhere I go, people tell me they want better transportation in their communities. They want the opportunity to leave their cars behind. To live near work and schools and good hospitals. And to enjoy clean, green neighborhoods. The old way of doing things just doesn't value what people want . . . [I]f we're serious—-really serious—about creating livable communities built around good transportation, then our Federal Transit Administration needs to consider key livability factors when evaluating non–Recovery Act transit proposals. Unfortunately, FTA's flagship programs [currently] use cost and performance requirements that are too narrow to allow for weighing these livability factors. [Emphasis in original.]

Reaction from transportation advocates has been positive. James Corless, director of Transportation for America, a coalition calling for a more environmentally and financially sustainable transit system, issued a statement in support of the new rule, saying, "This policy change represents a significant shift that will ensure our federal investments contribute to greater economic development, protect the environment, and improve the health of the American people. As discussion around the federal transportation authorization bill continues, there could not be a more important moment for forward-looking, innovative approaches to transforming our existing system."

But Stephen Lee Davis, also writing at Transportation for America, points out, this won't change the raw numbers of dollars that are available for projects—just the way they're divided. And it also won't deal with the larger problem of reauthorizing surface-transport spending for the long run.