Experts share secrets to transit funding success

1591On August 26th the MPO Board held a workshop to consider the advantages and disadvantages of federal transit funding. Two nationally known transit planners, David Vozzolo (HDR, Inc.) and Myrna Valdez (Gannett Fleming, Inc.), briefed the Board on the intricacies of qualifying for Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding. They also shared success stories from other cities that have secured FTA grants for rail and bus rapid transit projects.

Over the past five years, 100 projects nationwide received funding under highly competitive FTA programs such as New Starts, Small Starts or Core Capacity. Despite the vagaries of the Congressional appropriations process, FTA funding for major capital investment programs has not declined. FTA appropriations have remained remarkably stable and in fact reached almost $2 billion in fiscal year 2013.

FHWASince 2009, median funding ranged from $490 million to $745 million per project, with the feds providing up to 50 percent of a project’s costs. But as with any grant, there are always strings attached. Entering the federal funding “pipeline” can complicate projects and add two to three years to a project’s timeline due to environmental, public involvement and technical requirements.

To qualify for FTA funding, projects go through a rating process. The FTA evaluates projects by criteria such as mobility improvements, environmental benefits, congestion relief, cost effectiveness, economic development and land use. And 50 percent of a project’s rating is determined by the local financial commitment towards capital and operating costs. FTA uses these ratings to recommend projects to Congress for annual appropriations.

Across the county, urban areas are responding in a variety of ways to the competition for scarce federal dollars. Miami Beach’s modern streetcar project, for example, is a public-private partnership with entirely local funding. This is expected to save money and lead to an earlier start up. On the other hand, Ft. Lauderdale’s “Wave” streetcar will be 50 percent federally funded with the city, state, local and regional transit agencies making up the difference. Likewise, Atlanta’s modern streetcar involves a partnership between the city, MARTA, Downtown Improvement District and Atlanta Regional Commission. It was built with 48 percent federal funding and is expected to open this fall.

What lessons can Hillsborough County learn from these examples? To be successful in the quest for federal funding, the experts advised:

  • Present a solid business case for the projectontent
  • Demonstrate strong public and stakeholder support
  • Secure non-Federal capital and operating funds
  • Prove your management and technical capabilities
  • Be patient (but only a little bit)
  • Partner with agencies to promote reinvestment in major activity centers as compact walkable places
  • Develop enforceable Transit Oriented Development policies
  • Build ridership on existing systems and educate the public on ALL the benefits of transit
  • For ridership expansion, target Millennials and the elderly
  • Pass a transportation referendum to fund operations and the local share of capital costs.

For more information, email Beth Alden or phone 813/273-3774 x 318.