Out-of-state transportation leaders talk transit, urban rail with local policymakers

On Feb. 6, as part of a two-day roundtable series, transportation leaders from Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City discussed implementing transit systems in their respective cities to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transit Working Group, chaired by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

"I applaud you for doing this because that's how we learned," said Mike Allegra, general manager of the Utah Transit Authority.

Currently, UTA runs 10 light-rail lines. Its transit system boasts an annual ridership of 4.2 million people and has removed two lanes of traffic from the roadway, Allegra said.

The speakers interspersed recommendations throughout in the hour-and-a-half conversation. Steve Banta, CEO of Valley Metro Rail in Phoenix, suggested that one agency dictate scheduling connectors between the different types of transit: buses, commuter rail, light rail and streetcars.

"Transit cities are selling two, sometimes three seat rides. People are transferring two or three times to get to their destination when you end up with a total transit network because your transfers are timed, your waits are minimal," he said.

Bill Van Meter, assistant general manager of planning at Denver's Regional Transportation District, recommended that the transit planners err on the side of caution. He said Austin planners should establish a program-wide contingency plan.

Campaigning for community support

A reoccurring theme throughout the presentations was how to effectively run a community campaign.

"You need to develop a framework for how you garner community buy-in," Banta said.

Allegra showed commercials that were aired prior to a 2006 election in which voters were asked to support a proposition increasing the sales tax by a quarter cent to fund transit and road projects. The measure passed with nearly 64 percent of the vote.

"We had a good advertising agency," he said, laughing.

Van Meter described how mayors of the cities in the transportation district, while campaigning for a sales tax increase of four-tenths of one percent to fund transit infrastructure in 2004, would drop four pennies on the podium and say, "That's it."

When things go wrong

Although the sales tax increase in Denver passed in 2004, RTD is not able to complete the portion of the commuter rail system in the 12 years it had set forth prior to the election. In fact, absent additional revenues, construction would take until 2042, Van Meter said.

"What happened? We had the perfect storm," he said. "The economic downturn was preceded by significant rise in material cost."

Van Meter said that in 2004, the cost estimate of materials was $4.7 billion. Not much later, that estimate rose to $6.8 billion.

RTD's board of directors anticipates asking voters to approve an additional sales and use tax program of four-tenths of a percent to fund completion of the transit project by 2020—four years later than originally anticipated.

Despite the impasse, the public still supports the system, he said. An annual survey showed that about 70 percent of participants thought that approving the commuter rail was a good decision.

Decreasing federal funding

The speakers said the federal government has reduced its funding of transportation projects.

Allegra said the first of six grants for transportation projects that UTA received during his tenure required 20 percent of the project's cost be provided by local government and 80 percent would be provided by federal government. The most recent grant called for 80 percent of costs to be funded locally and 20 percent would be provided by the federal government.

"The percentages have been decreasing gradually throughout the years," Allegra said. "I think the most you can expect these days is 50 percent [from the federal government]."

Moreover, once the system is built, it requires funds to operate, Leffingwell pointed out.

The speakers said that they recovered anywhere between 15 percent and 40 percent from fares, and the rest of the cost was paid through loans, tax revenue or general obligation bonds.