The New Earmarkers
Cost analysis for transit projects gives way to 'social equity.'
President Obama has been heard of late ballyhooing what he's done to cut federal red tape. Left unsaid is what he is doing to fashion golden handcuffs for local transit agencies. Consider the work of his artisans at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced that "streamlined" regulations will make it easier for local transit agencies to procure grant funding under the New Starts program. Swept aside, says Mr. LaHood, are "certain time-consuming technical requirements that are duplicative or unnecessary."
Not so fast. Let's look closer at the old New Starts rules that Mr. LaHood characterizes as "technical requirements."
Under the existing New Starts guidelines, local governments competing for grants must compare the cost of their transit projects with alternative solutions. The Obama Administration's proposed rules would do away with this comparative cost analysis. The new rules put more weight on "social equity and environmental considerations." Such as? Such as the "degree to which policies maintaining or increasing affordable housing are in place."
Now let's have a look at how this noble goal works in real world.
At the top of the FTA's queue is San Francisco's proposed Chinatown subway, which couldn't get a full funding grant agreement under a more rational review process. The 1.6-mile line will cost $1.6 billion to build and draw just 5,000 new daily riders. Subway commuters would have to descend eight floors to catch the train and then walk the length of four football fields to connect with light-rail lines.
There is a cheaper alternative. A 2002 study by the city's transit agency found that a surface transportation solution to congestion on Chinatown buses would cost only $9.1 million [175 times less] to implement. The Sierra Club supports this plan, because improved bus service is more cost-effective and efficient than the subway.
So why spend $1.6 billion instead? Because San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee hope to deliver construction contracts to Bay Area developers, who are the project's biggest backers. The left coast Tammany Hall has already promised Chinatown developers $32 million to build affordable housing for displaced residents.
The Obama FTA hopes to rubber-stamp the Chinatown subway and as many other dubious transportation projects as it can before the November election. Future White Houses and Congresses would have a hard time reneging on the funding commitments once construction has started. Not least, the White House needs to give Congressional Democrats something to show for their time in D.C.
Republicans don't appear eager to kill the back-door earmark program. They had an opportunity to block New Starts funding in the surface transportation reauthorization act, but they didn't. Many hope to procure funding for projects in their districts. This is one way the Washington earmark machine will restart itself, unless the GOP shuts it down
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