Moving Ahead. Planned extension of New York’s Long Island Rail Road wins federal aid.

Mass transit projects are now pegged to receive $52.6 billion through 2009, thanks to long-awaited reauthorization of federal funding for U.S. transportation projects that Congress passed July 29. That is good news, but industry had not been waiting forlornly by the phone for federal aid to come calling. As reauthorization stalled over the past two years, an ongoing nationwide increase in transit ridership spurred local ballot initiatives, innovative financial schemes and closer looks at transit options. The increasing community buy-in has jump-started an evolution in transit design and construction. Transit projects are now considered an essential element of economic development and community planning, requiring engineers to evolve as well. They also are absorbing lessons from recent forays into alternative project finance and delivery methods.

Transit-oriented development (TOD), is not a new concept, but it has begun to take off in a big way over the past few years. TOD projects in trailblazing cities such as Portland, Ore., have proven successful and other regions are now taking note (ENR 5/6/96 p. 28). Engineers, designers and planners must embrace new skill sets as they involve themselves with this trend.

"Transit-oriented development is city building," says Fred Werner, president of DMJM+Harris, Los Angeles. "The challenge is to integrate our core skills–infrastructure planning and design–with disciplines as diverse as urban planning, public law, innovative finance, and economic development."

Not that there isn’t plenty of straight-up engineering work to do. "Mass transit is very pregnant," says Howard Sackel, transit vice president with URS Corp. "There is a pent-up demand and a lot of projects had been held back because of the lack of reauthorization."

Mass transit enjoys an overall 13% increase from SAFETEA-LU and also wins a new federal Small Starts program. This sets aside funds for transit projects under $200 million, such as downtown streetcar circulator systems. The reauthorization also helps dozens of projects in the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts program move from planning and design to construction. "This is what we’ve been working for," says Art Guzetti, policy and advocacy director for the American Public Transportation Association.

Tracking. Mass transit often is defined by commuter rail work but other options are gaining. (Photo courtesy of HDR)

New Starts Projects In FY2006

Phoenix. A 20-mile, $1.4-billion light rail system. Federal grant will provide $587 million.
Charlotte, N.C. A 10-mile, $400-million light rail system. Federal grant will provide $193 million.
New York City. A 3.5-mile, $7-billion commuter rail extension of Long Island Rail Road. Federal grant is $2 billion.
Pittsburgh. A 1.5-mile, $381-million light rail system. Federal grant contributes $217 million.

Masses for Transit

Officials with transit agencies and states have not been sitting on their hands waiting for federal help. In a strong sign that the traditionally auto-oriented American public is embracing mass transit, 42 of 53 local ballot measures to fund projects with local and state taxes passed last year.

Cities as improbable as Dallas, Phoenix and Denver have some of the biggest light rail expansion programs. Often, progress was determined simply by time and growth. Efforts that in some cases spanned a decade began to pay off as congestion grew and transit officials improved their pitch to stakeholders, convincing them to contribute tax dollars.

Work is under way on the first $1.4-billion, 20-mile segment of a light rail system to serve Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, Ariz. "In 1989, there was a valley-wide referendum for regional rail and it failed miserably," recalls Daina Mann, Valley Metro Rail spokeswoman. But with "phenomenal growth" and persistence, the three cities and Glendale finally embraced the plan.

The story of Denver’s $4.7-billion, 12-year FasTracks program is similar (ENR 5/9 p. 10) . "Everyone in 1997 rejected our 20-year plan," says Cal Marsala, Regional Transportation District general manager. Through the years, the agency refined its public outreach campaign and gained support for the 2004 ballot initiative that will fund 119 miles of new rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT).

Miami-Dade County is another pioneer in garnering local support for transit programs. In 2002, the county created a detailed outline, dubbed the Public Transportation Plan (PTP), of projects that would be funded by a 1Ú2¢ sales tax, says Ronald Barnes, deputy director of operations for Miami-Dade Transit. PTP allocates 20% of surtax to municipalities. "Giving money to the cities created greater buy-in by the people," he says.

PTP also called for an independent citizen’s review board, which "built public support, trust, and accountability," says Barnes. The group reviews proposals to ensure projects are in line with PTP. The trust makes recommendations to the board of county commissioners, which holds taxing power.

With aid from SAFETEA-LU, the county plans two more corridors totaling 19.6 miles and $2.2 billion. The Florida legislature also has allocated $709 million over the next 10 years to help fund public transit as part of a growth management bill. The money comes from state general funds, because the legislature feels that mass transit is needed to ensure sustainable growth. "The bill is a statewide initiative for managing urban development," says Ed Coven, state transit manager.

Such thinking is beginning to permeate other state transportation departments. "There’s a whole movement from traditional mass transit thinking to progressive choices," says Paul Morris, managing principal of PB Placemaking, a division of New York City-based Parsons Brinckerhoff that was recently created specifically for these types of projects. It is helping Maryland Dept. of Transportation with $500 million worth of planned TOD in West Hyattsville. The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority already has a station there, but it had not considered the site’s potential for economic development. Click here to view diagrams

MDOT changed WMATA’s mind by working with the agency, developers, community groups and private landowners, says Nat Bottigheimer, MDOT assistant director of planning and capital programs. Rather than use eminent domain to acquire...