Thursday, May 22, 2008

Streetcars, Light Rail, Wonkiness, and a Positive Note

There are a number of Columbus blogs that aren't incredibly political, but cover a lot of the general Metro Happenings. Lyndsey Teter wrote about them in a cover story for The Other Paper recently, and the issue of streetcars came up. When Mayor Coleman sat down for an interview with local bloggers last year, most of them wanted to talk streetcars. The mayor, showing a keen sense of his audience, gave us the exclusive scoop that the streetcar plan had been amended to stretch northward to OSU.

Recently, the streetcar plan has been big local news, with Coleman having a rare dispute with Council over who should be making the key decisions about going forward. The placement of the streetcar plan into the actual budget started a flood of commentary from local citizens, many of whom were opposed to the streetcar for various reasons. Many of these commenters also had suggestions for other transportation priorities.

I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut, because every time I started to open it, vile streams of profanity regarding the commenter's intelligence and that of their immediate ancestors threatened to come out. People didn't seem to be aware that millions of dollars has been spent studying every single one of the alternatives that they have suggested, and none (other than more frequent buses) has emerged as a viable proposal in the current funding climate, even though all of this information is pretty readily available. I had to force myself to remember that there was a time when I had no idea that MORPC, for instance, had been working for years to get light rail. I found out when I was looking for info to back up a comment I had made on Columbus RetroMetro saying that a streetcar didn't make sense unless it was part of a full regional solution, including light rail. Um, what was I saying about ignorance, again?

So I thought I'd update a post I did last year, explaining why the most promising light-rail proposal, the north-corridor project from downtown to Polaris, was going nowhere. At the time I explained that there were three elements that went into determining whether or not a project was eligible for federal funding: The cost, both in terms of annualized capital costs and yearly operating and maintenance, the number of riders, and the time savings in terms of the average number of minutes saved by each rider each trip by taking the train. Because Columbus has relatively quick commutes, it would appear that either an extremely unrealistic number of riders would have to take the train, or the train would have to operate faster than the speed of light, getting commuters downtown before they had left home. Otherwise, the cost/benefit ratio wasn't going to make it.

At the time, I freely admitted that I was not a transit policy expert, and I invited anyone with more knowledge to tell me when any of my assumptions were wrong, but unsurprisingly, no transportation authorities found my post worth commenting on, most likely because no such authorities found my post at all.

When I went to do this update, though, I found some things that did challenge those assumptions. First, from the latest Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) Transportation Report, dated May 8, 2008:

The FTA acknowledged in the latest New Starts
guidance published in the Federal Register on May 22,
2006, that cities, like Columbus, where a fixed guideway
is not already in operation are disadvantaged under the
current evaluation process because it under-represents
the travel time benefits. The FTA intends to work
towards a methodology that adequately addresses the
unallocated benefits. This policy change with corridor
specific characteristics could position COTA to
compete in the near future for a fixed-guideway project.
While the project is currently focusing on the No Build
option with bus expansion, MORPC recognizes that the
light rail option needs to be revisited when the
circumstances change.

I hadn't seen this in the FY2009 guidance document, published in 2007, so I went to the guidance published in 2006. Still couldn't find it. Given that the above paragraph refers to the "latest New Starts guidance," I thought that the reference to the 2006 document may have been a mistake, because new guidance had been published in 2007, well after the referenced guidance, but well before MORPC's report. What I found was extremely interesting - The 2007 2007 Federal Register version referred to the same suggestion as the above paragraph, but in the context of accepting recommendations for actually changing the policy:

FTA adopts as final its proposal to
allow project sponsors that seek to
introduce a new transit mode to an area
to claim credits (implemented through
what is commonly called a modespecific
constant) for the user benefits
caused by attributes of that mode
beyond the travel time and cost
measures currently available in the local
travel model. FTA will continue to work
closely with sponsors of projects that
have calibrated mode-specific constants
to ensure that they are using constants
that are generally consistent with the
methods and values permitted for
sponsors of projects which are new to an
This policy establishes a reasonable
approach to crediting alternatives that
represent new transit modes locally
with the mobility benefits caused by
changes in transit service characteristics
that are universally omitted from
current travel forecasting methods. The
policy applies to both the transit
guideways identified as locally
preferred alternatives and to guidewaylike
elements of baseline alternatives
used to evaluate proposed projects. The
approach gives credit—and additional
user benefits—based on the specific
attributes of the alternative as they are
perceived by travelers. FTA will assign
credits for characteristics in three
categories: (1) Guideway-like
characteristics (equivalent to a
maximum of eight minutes of traveltime
savings); (2) span of good service
(up to three minutes); and (3) passenger
amenities (up to four minutes). Further,
FTA will define a discount of up to 20
percent on the weight applied to time
spent on the transit vehicle. These
credits and discount are applied to the
calculation of user benefits only;
ridership forecasts will not be affected.
This policy is effective immediately
except in the case of baseline
alternatives in areas that are considering
expansion of existing guideway systems.
The policy will apply to those
alternatives beginning in May 2008 so
that project sponsors have sufficient
time to modify their travel forecasting
FTA will issue technical guidance on
the application of this policy in the May
2007 Reporting Instructions.

I take this to mean that because Columbus has no fixed-guideway transit, that it is possible to add up to 15 minutes to the "time saved per rider." In addition, when 'time saved' is calculated by subtracting the light-rail commute time from the car or bus commute time, we can act as if the light rail commute only takes 4/5 of the time we are actually estimating. If we can actually add 20 minutes to the 'time saved' number, we can start talking about a fast train instead of a time machine.

This was published in June of 2007, so I'm not sure why MORPC didn't reference it, but it certainly would seem to impact any proposal for Metro Columbus.

Additionally, ridership was calculated at a time when gas was about half the price in nominal dollars as it is now. Given that we've finally (finally!) hit a price point that is affecting driving behavior, a possible revision upward of the ridership numbers is not as sketchy of an idea as it was even a year ago.

So, while I have gotten on board (so to speak) with the streetcar proposal from Mayor Coleman, I have to admit that it's in part because I was convinced it was a transit project we could actually accomplish, which was simply something that wasn't remotely true of other options. Given the changes that have taken place, both economically and at the Federal Agency level, we might actually have a shot at this in the near future, especially with a new Presidential Administration that takes climate change seriously.

No comments: