Good transportation planning can result in more cost-effective capital projects and programs, along with improving cost-effective modifications to existing services.
In many cases, the Federal Transit Administration provides funding for these studies under several programs, such as the Metropolitan and Statewide Planning and Non Metropolitan Planning Sections 5303, 5304 and 5305. These grants can be used for funding and procedural requirements for multimodal transportation planning in metropolitan areas and states.
Planning needs to be cooperative, continuous and comprehensive, resulting in long-range plans and short-range programs reflecting transportation investment priorities. Urbanized Area Formula Section 5397 provides funding to public transit systems in Urbanized Areas (UZA) for public transportation capital, planning, job access and reverse commute projects, as well as operating expenses in certain circumstances.
Let us take a look at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT). The MTA already has both Five Year 2020 - 2024 and Twenty Year Long Range Capital Plans 2014 - 2034 which are periodically updated. We are all anxiously awaiting the new MTA 2020 - 2040 Twenty Year Long Range Capital Plan. It was promised by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA to be released by December 2019. It is now 18 months late.
Both documents clearly outline what capital funding is needed to maintain both a state of good repair for existing equipment, facilities and services along with safety, security and any future system expansion projects and programs. Specific costs and individual MTA operating agencies such as NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North Railroads and MTA Bus are also identified for both projects and programs.
The New York State Department of Transportation maintains the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). Each Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for every urbanized area, which is affiliated with NYSDOT, maintains a local Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council maintains a complete listing of proposed transportation projects updated on a yearly basis. Both NYCDOT and MTA participate in this process. Both the STIP and TIP documents contain a complete inventory of potential transportation improvement projects, respective sponsoring agency and estimated cost. Both the MPO and NYSDOT maintain five year short range and 20 year long range lists of potential capital transportation improvement projects by recipient and operating agency.
Every year, millions of dollars are spent for planning studies to research the potential for new transportation capital investments and system expansion. This includes New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's NYS Department of Transportation and NYS Empire State Development Corporation, state sponsored Metropolitan Planning Organizations in every major urbanized area including the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council which serves NYC, Long Island (Nassau and Suffolk counties) and Mid-Hudson South (Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties); the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the MTA, along with each operating agency, including NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road and MTA Bus; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's NYC DOT, NYC Department of City Planning Transportation Division and NYC Economic Development Corporation, the Regional Planning Association and other private entities. All of them periodically conduct transportation planning feasibility studies. Many of these agencies and activities are recipients of both Federal Transit and or Highway Administration funding.
Collectively, every decade a complete inventory of all these agencies would reveal dozens and dozens of transportation studies worth more than $100 million in costs have been completed. Funding for these studies comes from a variety of sources including city, state and federal.
How many transit agencies, MPOs, city, county or state departments of transportation have preserved and maintained copies of past studies going back decades? Has anyone ever taken a complete inventory of all these studies? Have they checked out the recommendations, estimated project costs, time line for implementation and identification of potential funding sources for going forward? Who checks to see that one study is not just a duplication of a previous study for the same issue?
During my time working at FTA Region 2, I would insist that every agency receiving funding for planning studies periodically conduct a simple analysis of all studies, be they locally, state or federally funded. It is important to preserve past history so we can learn from it, not repeat the same mistakes or pay for the same work twice. All studies under my watch would include information listing advisory and steering committee members, along with names of consultant employees who managed the study. (This is most useful if one has follow up questions months or years later.) I would also ask transit agencies to explain the outcome, if any, as a result of the study years later. Did any next steps take place to advance concepts or recommendations from the study? This might include environmental review, design and engineering or actual construction of a new transportation project.
The real problem is finding money to make things happen. All too often funding for many studies would have been better spent on real capital and operating service improvements instead of just lining the pockets of consultants. Too many studies end up long forgotten and collecting dust on the shelf of transportation planners. All too often we end up with a series of press conferences and news releases designed to provide free publicity for the elected officials who promoted the study to help them grease the wheels of future elections. These same elected officials promise a bright future but leave riders holding an empty bag. If properly scoped and managed, good transportation studies can be the basis for the initiation of cost effective well planned future capital investments or improvements to existing transportation operations.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions of dollars in grants which provided funding for capital projects and programs to the NY MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, NYC DOT, NJ Transit and more than 30 transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.