2014-11-13

A Fantasy Map Of U.S. Transit Projects

Where are cities actually doing something about the United States’ woeful public transit? This map will show you. But don’t get too excited. Unsurprisingly, most of these projects will never be built.

Ever wonder what the U.S. would look like if every region in the country had unlimited funding for all of its public transit dreams? Reconnecting America’s 2013 Transit Space Race map provides a pretty accurate guide.

The map, which includes every planned and under construction fixed guideway transit projects in the country (bus rapid transit, light rail, heavy rail, etc.) features 721 projects in 109 regions—and remember, that’s just what Reconnecting America could find from rifling through planning documents, talking with officials, and scanning articles. Interstate projects (i.e. high-speed rail) aren’t even included in that number.

The first Transit Space Race map was created in 2008, when Reconnecting America—a nonprofit that helps policymakers figure out how to provide more funding for regional transport through the federal funding apparatus—started examining the projects competing for a very limited pot of federal funding. Each year, the money allocated to the federal New Starts program for transit guideway investments ranges from $1.6 to $2 billion, and there are about 40 projects in the pipeline at any given time. This map, says Jeff Wood, the chief cartographer at Reconnecting America, "gives us an idea of the demand out there for what’s going on."

The number of projects listed is up from the 2011 map, when Reconnecting America logged 643 projects in 109 regions. "Part of that is us finding more information sources, talking to more people. Some of these regions are dreaming a little bigger," says Wood. Dreaming is certainly a big part of it—the vast majority of the projects are wishful thinking. The report notes:

In terms of process, we also found that 88 projects are in Alternatives Analysis, 99 projects are in the Engineering phase, 43 projects are currently stalled, and 52 projects are under construction. The rest are future plans without definite funding or determined alignments. In terms of funding and construction, using a rudimentary calculation of existing New Starts funds listed at $1.6 billion per year and assuming a 50% local match, it would take 78.1 years to construct all of the lines that have cost estimates.

In other words, most of these 721 projects will never happen. Wood concedes: "The list is a dream world, a fantasy list of all the projects that could possibly be built that are on the books or being discussed in regions throughout the country." In some cases, that’s just fine; not every project proposal is a good one.

But regions that have funding in place are quickly forging ahead. Take Salt Lake City. It probably doesn’t come to top of mind when you think of quality public transportation systems, but the city and surrounding region has 30 projects on the map. Eight of these projects, including new rail lines, bus rapid transit, and street cars, are going forward.

On the flip side, some regions have grand plans that look like they won’t come to fruition for a long time. Tucson, Arizona, has 12 projects on the map, and just one (a streetcar line) is in play. Future plans are up in the air; a measure to implement a half-cent sales tax hike that would have helped with funding was defeated last year. "Tucson has an expensive plan for 30 years out, but they haven’t passed a [higher] sales tax recently," says Wood.

Regions with an eye for pricey transit projects need to start thinking about alternatives to federal funding. "As funding stays the same at the federal level, more regions are going to have to step up and build on their own," says Wood.

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