Jumpstarting The Transit Space Race: 2011
Since 2004, regions including Denver, Portland, Salt Lake City, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Charlotte and the Twin Cities have been planning large transit network expansions that would move forward faster than the one-line-at-a-time production schedule that in the past had been economically and politically feasible. At the same time, smaller regions have been inspired by the benefits that transit can bring to their communities and have proposed their first streetcars, light rail starter lines and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). However these places have to compete with each other for the approximately $1.6 billion annually available in the federal New Starts funding program to build out their multibillion-dollar networks. Reconnecting America spent several months in late 2010 gathering the most current transit plans available from the 100 largest regions around the country, as well as some known projects from smaller regions.
Through this cataloging effort, Reconnecting America found 643 transit projects in 106 regions. Of these, cost estimates were available for 413 projects, 99 projects had detailed ridership and 121 had mileage information. For 143 projects, there was sufficient information about station locations for Reconnecting America staff to digitize station points and analyze demographic and employment conditions within a half-mile of the stations. Because information on transit projects changes almost daily, this catalog and findings are a snapshot in time and will need to be updated periodically in order to remain current. It is also possible that some projects and plans were not discovered during the cataloging process.
The demand for new fixed-guideway transit is strong all across the country. In this research alone, we documented more than 640 fixed-guideway transit projects from around the country in various stages of the transit planning process. This is a huge number, especially when compared to the number of projects currently in the federal New/Small Starts process (45 in 2011.)
The scale of the projects being proposed is immense. More than 30 percent of the individual projects examined were in regions that currently have no fixed-guideway transit. The ultimate outcome of this “race to the top” is still unknown, but if this analysis is any indication, there are many more competitors for limited transit infrastructure dollars than anticipated.
There is a huge backlog of federal funding through the New Starts program. For the 413 projects where Reconnecting America has collected cost estimates, the total estimated cost is $233 billion. If all of these were funded through the New Starts program at the current rate of federal investment in capital funding ($1.6 billion per year) assuming 50 percent federal share in projects, this would take 73 years to fund. Even the projects in the engineering and construction stage represent a 30-year queue, but will yield 1,464 miles of new transit.
This level of transit investment has the potential to transform American regions. If all projects that have station points (143 projects, about 20 percent of all of the projects in the catalog) were built, transit would connect directly 3.5 million more jobs than the current 14.1 million, about a 25 percent increase. Nearly 4 million households would receive enhanced transit access from these projects, with 46 percent of those being lower income households.
The New Starts Program isn’t sufficient to meet the demand. In addition to the backlog of projects, there are parts of the country that aren’t applying for or getting New Starts grants. Collectively, metropolitan regions in the Midwest have a total population that is similar to the total population of regions in the Northeast, but those Midwestern regions are seeking about one-third of the funding for new transit. The maps below show an additional dissonance between regions that have transit in their long range plans, but are not receiving or actively pursuing New Starts funding.
The New Starts Program is also not well suited to support the rapid system build out called for in many regions. There is a healthy competition among regions, and many are planning a large program of projects. The Los Angeles region is planning the most new transit lines, but even an optimistic timeline for construction under the current scenario would be 30 years for completion. The region is committed to trying to complete the projects in 10 years, but this is not feasible under the current federal transit funding framework. The federal government should find a way to partner in building out regional systems, especially where regional capacity to build projects has been “tested” through previous New Starts processes. Table four shows the regions with the largest number of projects currently planned.