Monday, July 06, 2009

Why CCT Supporters Should Give BRT a Chance

Some backers of the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) may be disappointed by a recommendation from the Planning Department staff that the project be constructed as bus-rapid transit (BRT). But CCT supporters should give BRT a chance for one simple reason: it may be the only way to make the project competitive for federal funding.

In order to be built, the CCT must qualify for funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which shares the cost of transit projects with applicant states. FTA gives proposed transit projects overall ratings of high, medium-high, medium, medium-low and low, with only projects receiving a medium or better rating considered for funding. The overall rating is the average of two sub-ratings: project justification and financial commitment, with each being ranked using the above five scores. Project justification is in turn an average of five component ratings on mobility improvements, environmental benefits, operating efficiencies, cost effectiveness and land use. If a project scores low on any of these categories, it must make it up with higher scores in one or more of the others. Any project with an overall score of medium-low or low will not be financed.

FTA makes the ultimate decision on each of the above ratings. But one of these ratings is already known for the CCT as well as the Purple Line and Baltimore’s Red Line: cost effectiveness. FTA defines cost effectiveness this way:

In its evaluation of the cost effectiveness of a proposed project, FTA considers the incremental cost per hour of transportation system user benefits in the forecast year. Transportation system user benefits reflect the improvements in regional mobility - as measured by the weighted in- and out-of-vehicle changes in travel-time to users of the regional transit system – caused by the implementation of the proposed New Starts project. The cost effectiveness measure is calculated by (a) estimating the incremental “base-year” annualized capital and operating costs of the project (over a lower cost “baseline” of transit service), and then (b) dividing these costs by the projected user benefits. The result of this calculation is a measure of project cost per hour of projected user (i.e. travel-time) benefits expected to be achieved if the project is added to the regional transit system. Proposed projects with a lower cost per hour of projected travel-time benefits are evaluated as more cost effective than those with a higher cost per hour of projected travel-time benefits.
Here is how different levels of cost effectiveness are associated with ratings:

The goal of any transit project should be to have a cost per hour of user benefit of $23.99 or lower, with the lower the better. Projects with higher costs per hour must get rankings of medium-high or high in one or more of the other categories to have a shot at an overall medium ranking, without which federal money will not be available.

The CCT will be competing with the Purple Line and Baltimore’s Red Line for funding. Few people believe that FTA will fund more than one of these projects at the same time. Few believe that Maryland can afford to pay its share of the cost for more than one of these projects at a time. (Some believe the state may not be able to afford any of them!) Each of these projects has several options for construction. Some options use BRT while others use rail. Some options use more tunneling than others. Some have different alignments than the others. But every option has a cost effectiveness estimate. Here’s how all of these options compare for the CCT, Purple Line and Red Line.

The only option to receive a medium-high cost effectiveness rating is surface BRT on the Purple Line using the Capital Crescent Trail. No one is particularly enthusiastic about that proposal. Of the eight medium cost effectiveness ratings, two are for BRT on the Purple Line, two are for rail on the Purple Line, one is for dedicated surface BRT on the Red Line, one is for dedicated surface rail on the Red Line and two are for BRT on the CCT. The two rail options for the CCT, as well as all the tunnel options for the Red Line, fall into the “low cost effectiveness” rating because they cost more than $30 per hour of user benefit. The Purple Line’s rail options generally do better than rail options for the other two projects because 1. population density on its route is greater than on the CCT, and 2. the cost of tunneling through Downtown Baltimore is very expensive. If the state chooses rail for the CCT or tunneling for the Red Line, those projects must be rated medium-high or high in one or more of the other categories to have a chance at federal funding.

Cost effectiveness is not everything. But it’s worth remembering that FTA initially rejected Virginia’s Dulles Metrorail extension in part because its cost effectiveness exceeded $31 per hour of user benefit - a low rating that is comparable to the cost of the CCT rail options. So if CCT supporters really want to see their project get built, BRT will give them their best chance of success.