The transportation stimulus comes home


U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood visited Houston on Friday. He took the chance to talk up the stimulus bill, signed into law a month ago. Stimulus money has started flowing to transportation projects. While transportation makes up only 6% of the $787 million bill, that $45 billion will make a significant impact: it’s nearly equal to a year of the government’s regular transportation spending.

So what does Houston get?

The bill includes multiple “buckets” of transportation money. The best summary I’ve seen is from Transportation 4 America. Here’s the rundown:

$27.5 billion for the Surface Transportation Program. That’s usually referred to as “Highway funding,” but it’s actually a very flexible pot of money; it can be spent on federal and state highways, bridges on any public road, public transit, bike paths, freight rail, and ports. Which projects get this money is not determined by the feds: the state departments of transportation get 70% and local governments get 30%. In our case, that means TxDOT gets $1.7 billion and the Houston-Galveston Area Council gets $123.7 million.

Not surprisingly, TxDOT sees this as highway money and puts the priority on adding capacity. Its project list includes $500 million in maintenance and $1.7 billion in new projects (pdf), of which there’s only $35 million for non-road projects. Locally, this list includes:

  • $181 million for Segment E of the Grand Parkway
  • $50 million for new ramps connecting Beltway 8 to the Eastex Freeway
  • $11 million to rebuild I-10 past Downtown
  • $43 million to rebuild the 610 North Loop from Ella to I-45

The first two projects — 80% of the local TxDOT funds — seem intended to encourage new suburban development rather than to address existing problems.

The HGAC’s funds go to:

  • Road widening for FM2004, FM 1098, FM 359, FM 1464, Little York, and Stafford/Staffordshire Road
  • Building a new section of Gosling Road
  • Intersection improvements on Beltway 8
  • New grade separations on FM 2100 and FM 1764
  • Preliminary engineering for commuter rail
  • Freight transportation analysis for IH69
  • Intelligent transportation systems

$750 million for fixed guideway transit modernization. This is an established federal program that is intended to help agencies maintain “fixed guideway” (which usually means rail) projects over 7 years old. This will go largtely to places like New York and Chicago, but our HOVs were built as federally funded fixed guideways, so METRO picks up $2.31 million.

$6.9 Billion for transit capital projects like buses, maintenance facilities, transit centers, and rail. This get distributed across the United States based on an existing funding formula. The Houston-Galveston region gets $90.9 million; METRO can expect to pick up most if not all of that. This will help METRO build its new light rail lines, either through METRO spending it on rail or through METRO spending it on other projects that would have been locally funded to free up more money for light rail.

$750 million for the New Starts program, which is used to build new rail lines. This is the program METRO is looking to get funding for the North, Southeast, and University lines from. The stimulus money itself likely won’t go to METRO, since those lines do not have Full Funding Grant Agreements in place, but it will go to projects that would otherwise have competed with METRO’s projects, so METRO’s prospects for funding do improve.

$1.3 billion for Amtrak. This will go to security improvements, fixing bridges and power supply on the Northeast Corridor (where, unlike in the rest of the country, Amtrak owns its own tracks), putting 68 damaged rail cars back in service, and repairing numerous stations, shops, and warehouses. Amtrak’s been underfunded for years, so this funding will deal with deferred maintenance, not add new service. Houston, with only 6 amtrak trains a week, won’t see much benefit, though there may be more seats available on those (usually full) trains.

$8 billion for high speed rail, defined here as intercity passenger trains running over 90 mph. Currently, Amtrak runs at least that fast between Boston and Washington, between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, on portions of the routes between New York and Albany, Chicago and Detroit, St. Louis and Kansas City, and Los Angeles and San Diego, and on some rural stretches in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. This money will go to states that have high speed rail projects ready to go. That includes California (where environmental approval and state bonds are in place for a $33 billion 220 mph route between Los Angeles and San Francisco), Midwest corridors centered on Chicago, Seattle-Portland, and New York-Albany. Texas won’t be on the list; while we have a proposal, we have only limited state government support and no alignment or financing studies, and neither Houston-Dallas nor Houston-Austin/San Antonio are on the federal list of designated high speed rail corridors.

$1.5 billion for “Supplemental Discretionary Grants” for “projects with national, metropolitan, or regional significance.” These are awarded by the feds, and we don;t know who gets them yet.

There are also some other transportation items that don’t fall under the Department of Transportation:

  • $4.6 billion for Army Corps of Engineers projects, including inland waterways.
  • $240 million for Coast Guard facilities
  • $300 million for buying electric vehicles for federal government fleets
  • $2 billion for electric car systems
  • $400 for electric vehicle R&D
  • $300 million for buying fuel-efficient cars for state and local governments
  • $300 million for reducing diesel fuel emissions
  • $1.1 billion for airport security
  • $150 for transit security

Some of that money will likely come our way as well.

One of the more interesting parts of the stimulus bill is, where President Obama promises “accountability” and “transparency,” including details of every project that gets stimulus money. The implementation regulations include a requirement that all agencies receiving funding create an internet feed of all reports to the feds. Hopefully, that will be a model for all of government.

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