Federal funding shift could aid D.C. area transit projects

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Obama administration announced a major shift in transportation policy Wednesday that would steer more money to transit projects designed to spur economic development and help the environment.

The change moves away from a Bush administration approach that gave funding priority to projects that would save the most passengers the most time for the money.

Shifting transit funding priorities could help District officials' efforts to transform two lanes of K Street into a transitway to speed buses through the heart of the city and also aid Maryland in its efforts to secure federal money for the 16-mile Purple Line.

The District is competing for a portion of $1.5 billion in economic stimulus money to help pay for the $140 million K Street project. The Maryland Transit Administration is seeking federal construction dollars for the light rail Purple Line, estimated to cost $1.68 billion, which would run east-west between New Carrollton and Bethesda.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the new approach Wednesday in a speech to the Transportation Research Board, a branch of the nonprofit National Research Council.

"Everywhere I go, the message is loud and clear," LaHood said. "People want more and better transportation infrastructure in their communities, from highways and bridges to light rail, multimodal transit stations, bike paths and walkways. They want the opportunity to leave their cars behind, to live near work and schools and good hospitals."

To achieve that, LaHood said, the administration needed to move away from the "very narrow cost and performance criteria" that has been transportation policy since 2005.

"To put it simply, we will take livability into account," LaHood said.

The change will allow the Federal Transit Administration to give greater weight to environmental and economic development benefits for a community, in addition to congestion relief.

"It's a dramatic and welcome change," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "This change will ensure that priority is given to designing mixed-use walkable communities."

Schwartz said the shift held promise for existing mass transit proposals and would encourage development of some still under discussion, including streetcar lines.

"This will help make the Purple Line much more competitive and help win federal approval for it," he said. "It runs through several distressed communities that would benefit."

Maryland officials have long said that a Purple Line is key to reviving aging, inner suburbs by attracting new development around light rail stations, particularly in Prince George's County areas such as Langley Park, Riverdale and New Carrollton. They say the state cannot afford to build a Purple Line unless the federal government pays for half of the construction costs.

Schwartz said federal officials also should "level the playing field" in funding highway and mass transit projects.

"The public may not know it, but for road projects, the federal government pays 80 percent, and the state pays 20 percent," he said. "On mass transit, it's 50-50."

Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance said the policy change seemed to be "watering down" standards to meld economic policy with that of transportation.

"The Obama administration seems to be weakening the criteria to expand it to include something called livability, and that's a very subjective standard," Chase said. "If the objective is economic development, then they should use economic development dollars, not transportation dollars. When you have scarce resources, you really have to focus on what moves the most people at the most reasonable expense."

Although LaHood said scores of "high-quality applications worth billions of dollars" had been submitted, the policy change seemed to enhance chances that the K Street bus lane project would be funded from the $1.5 billion in stimulus money known as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants.

Winners of the grant money are expected to be announced this month, and if the K Street project is among them, District officials said construction could begin in the latter half of this year.

After months of deliberation and public hearings, the D.C. Department of Transportation settled on a plan that would put a pair of bus-only lanes down the center of the street, separating them from other traffic with islands that would have sheltered bus stops.

That would leave three "general purpose" lanes in each direction most of the rest of the way (except where the street narrows as it passes three parks), and one of those lanes could be used for parking after rush hour.

The transitway would extend from Mount Vernon Square in the east to Washington Circle in the west. The intent is to create smooth-flowing commuter bus traffic through the heart of the city, ultimately luring people from their cars onto faster, more efficient buses.

Construction would be done in phases to minimize traffic interruptions.

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