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Creating Livable Communities Webinar


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More than 170 people participated in the March 10th webinar with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan and local transportation advocate Jim Erkel from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The webinar, “Creating Livable Communities: A Primer on the Federal New Starts/Small Starts Transit program," was hosted by Reconnecting America, Policy Link and the American Public Transportation Association.

McMillian gave an overview of the New Smarts program and its applicability to the Obama administration’s sustainable communities initiative. The New Starts program is just one piece of achieving the goals in the Inter-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Transportation. “The New Starts program should not be seen as a blue ribbon cutting event,” said McMillan, “but as an opportunity to redefine criteria to better capture livable and sustainable aspects of a community.” McMillan also stressed that existing law cannot be changed until reauthorization of the federal surface transportation bill happens.

The cost-effectiveness index (CEI), used in evaluating projects seeking New Starts and Small Starts funding was discussed. The CEI is a measure of travel times benefits compared to the cost of the proposed project. Prior to FTA issuing changes on January 13, 2010, projects were required to earn at least a median or better CEI score to qualify for funding, regardless of how well a project might have fared in other categories (economic development, land use, environmental, operating, and mobility improvements). McMillan used the college SAT score an equivalent metaphor: “CEI was similar to having your acceptance to college determined only by how well you did on your SAT test.”  Under the new ruling, projects that provide benefits in other categories, but receive a lower-cost effectiveness rating can now be eligible for funding. This is important to many communities that previously were cutting important project elements in order to pass CEI, and a chance to address equitable transportation issues in the project development and planning. “Focusing on stabilizing ridership in the long term and on current resources,” stated McMillan “makes a system operational in the future.” It’s about combining the right land use and securing a commitment from the community to make it happen.

Susan Borinsky, FTA Associate Administrator for Planning and the Environment, described the New Starts evaluation process from alternatives analysis to final design and the process for rating projects to receive federal funding agreements. FTA will issue an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) in the next couple of months seeking input on its evaluation of the six statutorily required criteria. The FTA website will provide more information on this, and opportunities for community engagement.

Jim Erkel discussed the Central Corridor project in Minnesota, a proposed light rail line that will connect the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul primarily along University Avenue.. Erkel’s organization along with numerous other social equity, environmental justice, and neighborhood organizations along the corridor organized to ensure that  equitable transit-oriented development issues were addressed and advocated the addition of three stations to serve transit dependent neighborhoods. Erkel noted that early project development efforts did not adequately consider the social and economic needs of the corridor’s residents and businesses. Through a process lead by the City of St Paul, these organizations developed a Central Corridor Development Strategy to articulate a vision for transit and TOD. Erkel discussed the impact of the previous CEI ruling on the project, particularly the resistance to adding these 3 stations, and stated that the “Minnesota Central Corridor is the poster child for why the CEI didn’t work.” Since the January 2010 announcement by Secretary LaHood the three stations have been added to the project through a mix of local and federal funding.