Unleashing the Hounds

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Recently, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that future federal transit grants would focus on “livability.” Beneath the rhetoric is LaHood’s decision to eliminate the only efforts anyone ever made to make sure transit money isn’t wasted on urban monuments that contribute little to transportation.

Back in 2005, then-Secretary Mary Peters stunned the transit world by adopting a “cost-effectiveness rule” denying funding to any transit projects that did not meet a very minimal definition of cost effectiveness. Particularly wasteful projects such as the extension of BART to San Jose (estimated to cost $100 for every new transit trip it will carry) and Portland’s commuter-rail line (which costs enough to give each commuter who uses it a free Toyota Prius every year for life) were eliminated by the rule (though these two were exempted by local congressional delegations).

In 2007, Peters took another step and required that any applications for federal funds for streetcars prove that they would be more cost-effective than buses. Up to 80 cities had planned to apply for such funds, and all but one immediately gave up, knowing that buses were far less costly.

LaHood’s announcement rescinded both these rules. Soon after, the Federal Transit Administration announced funding for streetcars in Dallas, New Orleans, and Tucson, as well as an inane light-rail line in Detroit. In effect, LaHood has said he doesn’t care how much federal money cities waste on rail transit. All that counts is image — and streetcars and other forms of rail transit supposedly create a much better image than buses.

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