When the Antiplanner published data about the Federal Transit Administration’s 2017 New Starts recommendations a few days ago, I assumed that projects that had no projections of future transit riders were still in the early planning stages. That may have been true for some, but at least for some there are no projections because the FTA doesn’t care how many people will ride the new transit lines that it funds.
When Congress created the New Starts program in 1991, it specified that funded projects must be cost-effective at improving transit and mobility. Initially, the FTA asked transit agencies to estimate the cost per new transit rider attracted by the projects. Later, it asked that they estimate the cost of saving travelers one hour of time through faster transit and congestion relief.
The Obama administration, however, discarded all of those measures and instead wrote a cost-effectiveness rule that essentially said, if you can measure the cost, your project is cost-effective. The FTA New Starts grant application form still requires agencies to calculate the cost per hour of time saved.
However, the Small Starts grant application forms doesn’t even ask transit agencies how many riders their projects will carry, much less how many of them will be “new” riders or how much time their projects will save. Small Starts grants can only be spent in corridors where transit currently moves at least 7,000 people per day, so agencies have to “warrant” that number. But they don’t have to show that their project will increase that number at all, much less that theirs is the most cost-effective way of doing so.
Even the New Starts application form doesn’t really measure cost-effectiveness. A project is truly cost-effective only if it attains a particular goal (in this case, saving people time) for a lower cost than any other alternative. The FTA no longer requires agencies to consider a wide range of alternatives, so all they have to do is report the number. If the number happens to be less than $25.49 per hour, the project is scored a bit higher than if it is more than that amount, but even if it is more, a project can be approved if it passes other criteria such as having “transit-supportive land-use” policies.
While I knew this about New Starts, I didn’t know that the Small Starts process wasn’t even going to consider ridership. I’m sure it won’t be long before the FTA funds projects that actually projected to reduce transit ridership simply because it never bothered to ask whether the project was good for transit riders.