U.S. Policy Plays Favorites With Public Transportation




It's a case that pits electricity versus petrol, density versus sprawl and tracks versus road. Portland, Oregon recently found out that their much-acclaimed streetcar system wasn't good enough for the feds. Even though their system of modern-day streetcars has spurred economic development, drawn the creative class and changed perceptions about public transportation, the city's planned expansion of the service could be facing roadblocks from the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA would rather see the money from a program called Small Starts go to buses instead, specifically bus rapid transit, or BRT.

Through the Small Starts program, Congress directed the federal bureaucracy to give streetcar proposals credit not just for moving people efficiently but for spurring growth nearby in the form of restaurants, shops, apartment and condominium buildings. Bus routes, which can easily change, do not show such corollary development.
In some ways, this is not surprising. BRT is, in many cases , cheaper to build than rail-based transportation. And, buses are a known commodity to most urban areas of the United States - whereas streetcars are just starting to build a revival. However, although there have been successful BRT programs in places such as Bogota, Colombia, and Curitiba, Brazil, BRT has not caught on in wide-scale usage in the U.S. Most American cities are hesitant to dedicate two full lanes of traffic to bus service. Portland-style streetcar systems, on the other hand, run within existing traffic lanes, building density by producing compact development. Not that the FTA equates density with good transportation.

In fact, the FTA has already stated that the problems associated with sprawl are not considered. Perhaps the biggest downfall of the FTA's favoritism is that it caters to sprawled development. The new guidelines give preference not only to the most cost-effective services, but to "how quickly they move people over great distances."

Promoting the compact land use that could result from rail transit isn't such a high priority, said a Federal Transit Administration official involved in rail planning.

In contrast, Portland prides itself on such compact development practices. Residents in areas serviced by Portland's streetcar travel only an average of 9.9 miles per day, compared with 21.8 miles per day for Greater Portland. Which begs the question: is it better to build a transportation system that contributes to compact neighborhoods or one that simply moves people around? The FTA has certainly made their stance clear.

::Via Oregon Live

Tags: Oregon | Portland | Public Transportation