MAP-21 Annotated: Seattle-area Transit Agencies Could Lose Millions

New federal transportation law MAP-21 penalizes major city transit agencies using HOV lanes to increase trip reliability & travel time. I-5 Seattle image: HeatherHeatherHeather, flickr.

Seattle-area transit agencies could lose millions under a program change in MAP-21, the new federal transportation bill. A different program change will provide more funding; agencies are still running the numbers to determine if there will be a net loss or gain of funding during the two years of the legislation. But it’s looking like Puget Sound will see a net loss (not including New Starts funding). (Also see our other MAP-21 stories.)

Other regions which may be impacted by the provision include Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Jose, Orange County and Phoenix.

The change is the criteria for distributing funding through the transit Fixed Guideway program. Under SAFETEA-LU the program provided funds to agencies through a formula based on a variety of transit services like commuter rail, light rail, cable car, and transit on HOV lanes. The new bill eliminates transit on HOV lanes from the Fixed Guideway funding formula, unless the lanes are used exclusively by transit.

As a result, the Puget Sound region’s four transit agencies – King County Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, and Pierce Transit collectively could lose as much as $20-$25 million in annual funding.  The region would be the hardest hit in the country because it has the nation’s most extensive HOV lane network, and the highest transit use of those HOV lanes.

Hit how hard?  Sound Transit estimated that if the change had been in effect in 2011, it would have lost $3 million (receiving $7m instead of $10m). King County is still crunching numbers, but some outside the agency estimate the cost could be upwards of $10m a year to Metro.

Ironically, this feels almost like a penalty for investing in HOVs which can improve transit trip reliability and time, and can move people more quickly, safely and cleanly. This doesn’t feel like a 21st Century, visionary, urban mobility transportation provision. In a May letter to Senator Barbara Boxer the four Seattle-area transit agencies noted:

“Over the past 30 years, the Puget Sound region has invested more than $2 billion in taxpayer dollars to develop one of the largest High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) networks in the nation. This 310-mile network also serves as the backbone of the region’s high-capacity transit system, which among our four agencies carries over 200,000 daily transit passenger trips. By utilizing the HOV network for high-capacity transit our region has been able to maximize federal, state, and local investments to build a highly efficient, integrated system that includes the seamless use of high capacity transit, light rail, and commuter rail infrastructure.”

Washington State’s Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell joined the transit agencies in fighting the change. In fact Senator Murray successfully added an amendment to Senate’s bill  that created a new $75 million “Bus and Bus Facilities State of Good Repair” discretionary grant program (in which the region’s agencies would have been highly competitive) in order to compensate for the loss of HOV lane funding. That program was apparently eliminated from the final MAP-21 bill.

So who was advocating for the change? Ironically it was not anti-transit folks; it was almost certainly folks who actually are very pro-transit. Eliminating HOV eligibility from the Fixed Guideway formula frees up more funds for the “legacy” modes of transit such as the subway/light rail/commuter rail systems on the East Coast and in a certain large Midwest city. Senior members of the Senate Committee which was responsible for the section that eliminated HOV eligibility represent those systems and cities; they almost certainly were responsible for creating the Senate provision, and later sat on the MAP-21 negotiating committee.

Additionally, few transit agencies across the country were very impacted by the change. The life or death of an amendment or provision in the Senate usually is directly related to how many states are impacted.  In this case, very few states were harmed by making the change, and the advocates were very senior Senators who ended up serving as the bills negotiators.  That’s a combination nearly impossible to overcome.

The good news is that the funding loss may be limited or even erased by additional funding from another transit provision, however.

Map-21 creates a new “High Intensity Motorbus State of Good Repair” program that allocates some funding for transit service on HOV lanes. It could provide about $13 million annually to Seattle-area transit agencies, according to a newly updated estimate.  However the final amount still needs to be calculated by FTA.

There are other transit program changes which are still being analyzed for their financial impact. At this point it seems like Puget Sound could be a net loser in federal transit funds, excluding the New Starts grants program.

We will have more clarity about the numbers once the analysis is complete within the next week or so.