The discussion on where Austin’s first urban rail route should run has switched tracks. The Friday meeting of the mayor’s advisory group did not open with a discussion of the questions which have occupied this blog lately: which area of central Austin would best support an urban rail route (or vice-versa). Instead, many advisory group members addressed emails from the public supporting studying a Lamar route by discussing what has been an elephant on the tracks: FTA funding for bus improvements.
Starting in January, Austin’s #1 bus route will see various improvements paid for by the FTA: longer buses, real-time information on bus location, wifi, longer spacing between stops. Another bus route will see many of the same improvements a few months later. As a frequent bus rider, I’m happy to see buses improve! It’s a modest improvement–the buses will still get stuck in traffic through much of their routes. But its benefits will not be limited to the #1 and #3 routes: the restricted-car lanes through downtown will eventually be used by most routes. The heaviest costs of the real-time bus information system is setting up the system itself; once the grant has paid for the upfront IT costs, Cap Metro will be able to expand it relatively inexpensively to the rest of the fleet. Even the most expensive part of the system–the buses themselves–will save Cap Metro the cost of replacing the existing buses. FTA is not funding *additional* buses along the #1 route, merely the routine cost of replacing buses, although the buses it’s replacing them with are nicer and more expensive than the buses Cap Metro would otherwise have bought. Viewed this way, the FTA grant is less a massive upgrade to a couple of bus routes and more a clever way for the federal government to help pay for incremental improvements in Austin’s bus system, to be first deployed on Austin’s most popular bus route, the #1.
But was it too clever? The argument at the mayor’s advisory group made was that FTA’s funding for these improvements would need to be paid back and reapplied for on a different route before the FTA would agree to upgrade a portion of the #1 bus to rail. Furthermore, the FTA would not look kindly on Austin for applying for a larger, better rail project in an area they have already received funding and probably refuse to fund the rail. Friend-of-the-blog Niran Babalola offers an interesting comment (via e-mail):
This example will be used around the country to demonstrate that investments in better buses push off rail for decades. This is counter to both the city of Austin’s interests (where MetroRapid in other corridors will probably be a good idea, but won’t be supported) and the FTA’s interests (who want cities to make bus investments until the money for rail appears, but will face more reluctance with this example).
So is it FTA policy that using FTA grants to improve your bus service endangers your ability to get funding for rail? I don’t know; the most definitive piece of evidence on this question at the meeting was a sidebar conversation at a conference. Julio believes this couldn’t possibly be right. I hope an enterprising reporter can get the FTA to answer the question for us. It’s a question with importance beyond Austin.
(In case it sounds like this is a novel worry; it’s not. The furthest back I could find comment on this issue was Mike Dahmus’ blog posts from 2004, when the system was first proposed.)