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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
The federal government committed a hefty chunk of money to transit programs last month in hopes of generating jobs and stimulating the economy. On Feb. 17, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 into law. The bill includes $48 billion for transportation.
Of that, $8.4 billion will be allocated for transit projects, including $5.5 billion for Urbanized Area Formula Grants, $750 million each for Fixed Guideway Modernization and Capital Investment, or New Starts, grants, and $690 million each for Rural Area Formula and Growing States and High Density Formula grants.
“This groundbreaking legislation will give people expanded travel options, while creating or supporting hundreds of thousands of American jobs,” said American Public Transit Association President William Millar in a prepared statement. “Setting the course for years to come, this legislation will begin to craft a greater intermodal transportation system that our nation desperately needs.”
Even before the legislation was signed, transit agencies had begun compiling project lists and preparing to apply for grant funding, the majority of which must be obligated within the next several months.
For example, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority outlined $230 million worth of ready-to-go projects it could complete with economic stimulus funds, such as replacing platforms, installing emergency tunnel evacuation carts, rehabilitating track, building a rail-car inspection and test facility, and updating train arrival signs on platforms and mezzanines, the agency said.
The Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon identified $127 million worth of projects it believes would qualify for stimulus funds. The agency plans to apply for funding to install switch heaters on the MAX light-rail line, add another track at the Willow Creek/SW 185th Avenue Transit Center to increase service, make improvements at several stations and repair track.
At the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA), officials plan to request funds to rebuild light- and heavy-rail cars that run on the Blue and Red lines, complete a Metro Bus and Rail Divisions solar panel and energy efficiency project, conduct positive train-control surveying and GIS mapping for Metrolink, complete a Metro Rail subway escalator canopy project and improve a Metro Red Line rail-car maintenance yard facility.
The authority also plans to seek $150 million for the first phase of the downtown L.A.-to-Culver City Exposition Light Rail Transit project and another $150 million for the Pasadena-to-Montclair, Calif., Gold Line Foothill light-rail extension.
“We don’t know yet what the federal guidelines are for New Starts or discretionary funds,” says LACMTA spokesman Rick Jager. “Pending those guidelines, there may be projects that have a better fighting chance, and if that’s the case, the board would revise the plan and perhaps substitute projects that could be better qualified to get the money.”
High-speed rail authorities also are determining uses for stimulus funds. The legislation included a surprising $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail, given the amount quadruples the $2 billion originally proposed by the Senate.
The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), for one, says it could use at least $2 billion by the Sept. 30, 2012, deadline. Like other transit agencies, the authority is waiting to learn what the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) funding guidelines will be, but specific projects could include grade separations in the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim corridor; street and pedestrian crossing construction in San Bruno; right-of-way purchase and construction grading for a maintenance facility in the Central Valley, as well as two storage facilities in the Bay Area and Los Angeles basin; and design and procurement to electrify the rail system between San Jose and San Francisco, including train controls and commuter vehicles.
“All of these projects will advance the California high-speed rail construction schedule and have a significantly beneficial effect on California’s economy throughout construction and permanently thereafter, creating hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs,” said CHSRA Chairman Quentin Kopp in a prepared statement.
Amtrak stands to gain a share of the stimulus funds, as well, with $1.3 billion earmarked for the national intercity passenger railroad. Of that, $850 million is allocated for capital improvements — no more of 60 percent of which can be used for the Northeast Corridor — and $450 million for capital security grants.
Meanwhile, both passenger and freight railroads could garner additional dollars through two flexible funding programs. The $27.5 billion highway program includes a provision that would enable states to allocate some of the funds for rail projects designed to reduce highway congestion. The legislation also includes a $1.5 billion intermodal discretionary program that could be used for highway, bridge, public transportation, passenger- and freight-rail, and port infrastructure projects.
“This bill represents a huge victory for both passenger and freight rail,” said Edward Hamberger, president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads. “The additional flexibility that was provided opens up the possibility for critical investment in rail projects that will improve the efficiency of our nation’s freight transportation system.”
For its part, the USDOT plans to make accountability a top priority when it comes to the stimulus funding. Last month, the department established the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) team, which will coordinate and oversee the transportation portion of the economic stimulus package.
Staffed with USDOT operating and administrative officials, the team will identify and prioritize key transit rail, highway, bridge, aviation and intermodal spending.
The group also will ensure funding is rapidly made available for transportation infrastructure projects and develop reporting standards to accurately track money as it’s spent.
The TIGER team will be co-chaired by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs Lana Hurdle and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Joel Szabat.
In addition, the USDOT’s chief economist and Performance Management Office will coordinate with the Office of Management and Budget and other White House departments to review performance measures that will be used to track job creation and other measurements designed to assess the impact of each infrastructure investment.
“We will have transparency, we will have accountability and we’re going to do things by the book,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We have a big job ahead of us, and I know both federal and state governments are all up to the challenge.”