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U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Rescinds Bush Transit Spending Restrictions

January 18, 2010

From ABC News – Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday rescinded Bush administration restrictions on federal transit grants so that a wider range of projects will be eligible and local transit systems will receive money faster.

LaHood told a conference of transportation officials and researchers that the Obama administration wants greater flexibility to help pay for bus, rail and other transit projects that could provide an economic boost, benefit the environment or improve the “livability” of communities.

Former President George W. Bush, who felt transit systems should rely more on local revenue and less on federal funds, adopted a policy in 2005 that restricted federal grants to transit construction projects and equipment purchases that could be shown to reduce traffic congestion and commute times and that met narrow cost-benefit rules.

The Bush policy, which was primarily helpful to suburban commuters, delayed money going to some projects by as long as four years as the government repeatedly kicked back applications to transit agencies until they could show they complied with the rules, said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

The policy also created transportation “nightmares” for some transit agencies that had to reshape their projects to follow the federal rules, Rogoff said. Officials in Charlotte, N.C., for example, wanted to buy trains and build platforms to accommodate up to three cars, but they couldn’t justify the cost under the Bush restrictions, he said.

Local officials scaled back the project to two-car trains, but ridership has exceeded expectations and platforms will now have to be enlarged and extra cars added at greater expense than if the original plan had been approved, Rogoff said.

“It’s not that we’re going to ignore cost — we always want to be sure people aren’t building Taj Mahal projects — but everything was cost before,” Rogoff said.

Trolleys, inner city buses, and bike and pedestrian projects are some types of projects that improve the ability of people to move around cities that will now be eligible for grants even though they don’t necessarily shorten the time of long commutes, he said.

Rogoff cited two projects in particular that might benefit from the new policy: Special bus lanes and rapid transit buses in New York, and light-rail trains that will connect Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota. He said he is troubled “from a civil rights perspective” that the Minnesota project may not build train stations in black and Asian neighborhoods of St. Paul because they wouldn’t comply with the Bush policy’s cost-effectiveness rules.

The new policy “will allow that (train) service to do a better job of serving those communities,” Rogoff said.

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press Writer

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