"Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go directly to Jail" ... that sums-up US federal transport policy, except ... you DO collect hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars. What am I talking about? Simply the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts Program.
The New Starts Program provides funding for major new public transport projects. The problem is that most of these projects were planned decades ago and often no longer make sense, but, since the program is essentially a "first-come, first-serve" system (in other words once a project is approved - and, thanks to Congressional politics, almost all projects are eventually approved - it is simply placed in the queue for eventual funding) and since projects cannot be changed once they are in the queue (without going back to the end of the queue), what is built often reflects plans developed decades earlier.
A good example is Buffalo NY, where I grew up. Buffalo began planning a heavy rail system in the 1960s. Gradually the plans were downscaled to a light rail system, although most of the route is underground. Construction of Buffalo's light rail system was started in the late 1970s and finished in the 1980s, but, guess what, Buffalo was a different city then. The six-mile light rail line cost well over $600 million and operating costs are much higher than the buses it replaced. This would be fine if there was sufficient ridership to warrant increased service or if the line was able to revitalize the center city, but there isn't and it hasn't. Buffalo has decentralized, its population has fallen drastically, its transport priorities are vastly different from the 1960s, and its transit district is struggling financially. These trends were clearly visible as final plans were being made for Buffalo's light rail line, but, because no substantial changes could be made to the plan once it was in the FTA New Starts Queue (without losing federal funding), more effective projects could not even be considered.
A similar problem is brewing now in San Francisco. The city's Central Subway project, planned during the early 1990's, is in the FTA's New Starts queue and has powerful support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, as this article explains, after more detailed engineering, the project's costs have skyrocketed and its effectiveness has been significantly reduced. There are many much more efficient and effective ideas for improving public transport in San Francisco, but since the Central Subway is in the federal queue and transport managers do not want to lose the chance for federal funding, there is no possibility for implementing these new ideas.
These two illustrations show why we need to revisit federal urban transport policies. Probably the best idea is to develop a block-grant type program that allows cities to spend federal funds on projects that they believe will best solve their problems. This will allow cities to better link transport planning with other urban plans and lead to more innovative and creative transportation solutions. In the 1970s, the federal government introduced an extremely successful program that enabled cities to 'trade-in' funds designated for US Interstate urban freeways for public transport. This program was used to fund some of the most successful public transport projects of the last several years including Portland's first light rail line, Boston's Orange Line and San Francisco's Embarcardero Roadway/Muni Metro line. We should learn from that program.
I hope that Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Congress will take up this issue, it would help reduce porkbarrel politics and revitalize our cities at the same time. I think that many professional transportation planners and managers would welcome finally getting out of New Starts Jail.