For those of you who missed it late Friday afternoon, the news broke that “[t]he Federal Transit Administration has declined Arlington and Fairfax County’s joint application for funding for the planned Columbia Pike streetcar system.” On the surface, of course, this sounds bad, if you’re a strong supporter of the streetcar, as I am (and as are most people who favor smart growth/transit-oriented development). However, dig a little deeper, and the lack of federal funds is not only not such a bad thing, but this news might actually turn out to be a good thing, in combination with another development right here in Virginia in recent months. A few points I’ve gathered from talking to people, reading the press releases, etc.
1. A strong majority (4 out of 5) of the Arlington County Board remains firmly committed to the streetcar project. Nothing has changed in that regard. This thing’s a done deal, despite all the shouting by a vocal minority.
2. As for the federal money, it’s very unusual for projects of this nature to get funded on the first go-around. In this case, it turns out that the problem is much bigger than that; namely, the FTA didn’t fund ANY rail or BRT for the first time in 20 years. Check this out.
The final FY 2013 appropriation was $380 million below the President’s request for the
New Starts/Small Starts program. Reductions in FY 2013 funding are partially attributed to the automatic spending reductions under sequestration. As a result, FTA reduced the FY 2013 payout level of all existing construction grant agreements for capital projects. Additionally, FTA was unable to make new funding commitments for new capital rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) projects for the first time in roughly 20 years.
In other words, thanks to the Teahadist House of Representatives, investment in America’s future has been slashed, to the detriment of all of us. It’s totally pathetic, wrong, you name it, but this is the type of mindless, know-nothing attitude that swept to power in the madness of the 2010 mid-term elections. Unfortunately, we’re all going to be paying the price for those elections for a long, long time to come, both at the national and local levels. Thanks a lot, Teapublicans and those who voted for them (or stayed home because they falsely believed their votes “didn’t matter” – ugh!).
3. Fortunately, here in Virginia, we now have a new source of funding for transportation. Whether you love, hate, or have mixed feelings (that would include me) about the newly-enacted Virginia transportation law, it is highly likely to provide Arlington with as much or more money for transportation than the feds would (or could) have provided. That’s a funding stream that no one had any idea was even possible when the FTA application went in last fall. It’s also a funding stream that’s likely to start flowing on July 1 – much sooner than the federal money would flow if Arlington had to reapply, wait another year, run up against the same Teapublican-caused funding constraints, etc, etc.
So, bottom line: Arlington could theoretically reapply for federal money to fund the streetcar project, but honestly, why even bother? As it turns out, money should start to flow shortly, and Arlington can then start moving ahead (finally!) with this important project. Phew.
P.S. Oh, by the way, my understanding is that the Virginia transportation money can only be used for new transportation projects, so it is most definitely not fungible (some opponents have falsely claimed that it is) with other needs – education, parks, you name it.