Letter to the Editor: Why Not Bus Rapid Transit?

Letter to the Editor: Why Not Bus Rapid Transit?

To the Editor:

How could being denied federal funding for the Columbia Pike streetcar somehow result in more federal funding for the streetcar? According to Chairman Tejada, it works like this: apply for 30 percent federal funding under the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Small Starts program, get disqualified due to bogus cost estimates, then apply to the FTA’s New Starts program and receive 80 percent federal funding instead.

In a city known for its spin, this is about as bad as it gets. Why didn't the county apply to the New Starts program in the first place, saving years of work and perhaps millions of dollars in planning costs? Why did the county play a shell game in a failed attempt to avoid busting the $250 million limit for Small Starts, such as by hiding station costs in the Super Stops program instead of placing them under the streetcar?

The answer is simple. There is no pot of gold at the end of the New Starts rainbow, at least for under-performing rail projects, like the Columbia Pike streetcar. The Silver Line to Dulles sought 50 percent federal funding under New Starts, but the FTA is providing only about 16 percent. The Tucson, Arizona Modern Streetcar is expected to receive just 12.7 percent through New Starts. FTA recently listed 45 projects in its funding pipeline and there are no other streetcar projects seeking New Starts funding. The assertion that the streetcar will receive 80 percent funding through New Starts is as credible as the county’s 2005 streetcar cost estimate, which was $110 - $120 million.

Although the streetcar’s prospects are dim, it is nevertheless possible to get 80 percent federal funding for Columbia Pike transit. The Fresno Area Express, the Jacksonville Southeast Corridor, and the Jacksonville North Corridor are all expected to receive 80 percent federal funding, according to FTA’s list of projects. What do these projects have in common? They are not streetcars. They are bus rapid transit, in at least one case without firm plans for a dedicated lane.

Congress even created a new program, guaranteeing a minimum 80 percent federal share for up to three projects nationally per year, provided these projects are bus rapid transit using a dedicated lane. Streetcars are not eligible. Other cities, like Chicago, are planning BRT projects in dedicated lanes on roads similar to Columbia Pike.

It’s time to stop spinning Arlington taxpayers. The County Board can continue wasting more time and money chasing the pot of gold, or it can get realistic and pursue a federal funding strategy that is more likely to be successful. It’s up to them.

Bill Vincent