With proposals for a new federal transportation bill percolating through Congress, it is worth reflecting on one of the larger ironies in the current system of federal transportation project funding. Contrary to popular belief, there is actually substantial precedent within the federal Department of Transportation for the linkage of land use and transportation investments. But that linkage is used as an analytical criterion only by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) under the New Starts program, not by the Federal Highway Adminstration (FHWA) for the federally funded highway projects which have far greater cumulative impacts on the form and sustainability of cities.
As pointed out originally by Edward Beimborn and Robert Puentes in the Brookings Institution’s valuable 2005 book Taking the High Road: A Metropolitan Agenda for Transportation Reform, this is one of a long series of criteria that are rigorously applied to transit projects seeking federal funding, while federal highway funds are virtual entitlements, apportioned to the states by formula with minimal project-level evaluation. The criteria applied to New Starts projects include mobility improvements, environmental benefits, operating efficiencies, cost effectiveness, transit-supportive land use patterns, and even anticipated future land use patterns. Within these general criteria, FTA applies a series of specific measures, which include several that directly serve regional smart growth, such as:
- Change in regional pollutant emissions
- Change in regional energy consumption
- EPA air quality designation
- Existing land use
- Transit-supportive plans and policies
- Low-income households served
- Employment near stations
Application of such criteria to federal highway projects, needless to say, would dramatically change the profile of the projects that get approved. Necessary as these criteria are, their application only to transit projects further hampers the development of those projects relative to highways. Furthermore, some transportation funding experts argue that the culture of the FTA is one that seeks to punch holes in project proposals and find reasons not to dedicate scarce funds to applicants, whereas the FHWA is seen as a problem-solver on behalf of its applicants’ project proposals. While undoubtedly a by-product of the relative funding levels available, this compounds the double-standard.
The more positive flipside of this dynamic, though, is the simple fact that there is precedent within the DOT for the application of such criteria to transportation projects. Were such criteria ever to be required for highway projects, as they must eventually be if we are to achieve sustainability, FHWA could learn a lot from how FTA reviews projects. To get there, we will first have to stop apportioning highway funds to states by formula and instead make highway project proponents compete for funds as transit proponents now must. We should also create processes by which transit projects can be considered directly as potential alternatives to highway projects (a comparative evaluation process that does not currently exist) and enshrine a mandatory preference for the transit projects whenever impartial analysis documents equal or superior overall benefits.