Mass. can play federal transportation funding game better

To compete, the MBTA needs its own planning department

ON FRIDAY, we received the good news that Boston was awarded a $15 million federal “RAISE” grant for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and multimodal street improvements along Blue Hill Avenue. This is worth celebrating, but in the world of federal funding, we should aim higher.

The Blue Hill Avenue project will speed trips for tens of thousands of bus riders, improve safety for people walking, biking and driving, and help to reduce air pollution in Dorchester and Mattapan. We hope that this grant will fast-track both improved bus service and pedestrian safety on Blue Hill Avenue, following in the footsteps of the new center-running bus lanes on Columbus Avenue, while also inspiring Massachusetts to seek larger federal funding opportunities.

This grant shows that Massachusetts is competitive for the much bigger pots of money that are available for cities and transit agencies that pursue them. The USDOT-wide RAISE grant program is broad in scope but relatively small in size. It is highly competitive—in addition to transit, it includes ports and paths, roads, and airports—with fewer than 10 percent of submitted projects selected for funding. It provides a maximum of $25 million per project, and an annual total of $1 billion, much of it programmed for rural areas. It is a testament to the persistence of the federal delegation, the MBTA and the City—which submitted the Blue Hill corridor for the second year in a row—that the project was awarded funding.

By contrast, the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program is a larger, more focused transit funding program. It provides more than $2.3 billion per year focused solely on transit projects, chiefly in congested urban areas (it is the major federal funding component of the Green Line Extension).

CIG funding is less competitive: Utah has received $140 million for BRT projects—nearly 10 times what Boston received for Blue Hill Avenue—in Ogden and Orem-Provo. Combined, these 15 miles of BRT corridor—five times the length of Blue Hill Avenue—are projected to carry fewer than 14,000 passengers, compared with the 20,000 riding buses on Blue Hill Avenue every day. The larger, exclusively-transit CIG program means that, for example, the federal government has already committed $2.4 billion (about three times what Massachusetts received for GLX) to the state of Washington for nearly a dozen CIG projects underway there. Once GLX is completed next year, Massachusetts will have no planned or proposed CIG projects in the pipeline.

This RAISE grant should inspire MassDOT and municipalities to be far more ambitious about applying for federal funding to improve our transit system. Many forward-thinking states seek CIG funding opportunities to implement several projects at the same time. While Massachusetts has had one project (GLX) in the past decade, some states have had more than a dozen. In addition to large states like California (13 current projects) and Texas (7), states no larger than Massachusetts—like Washington (9 current projects), Minnesota (4), North Carolina (4) and others—are far ahead.

In order to take advantage of federal funding, Massachusetts needs increased planning capacity. Without its own planning department, the MBTA simply does not have the bandwidth to seek federal funding, and outlying regional transit agencies often lack the capacity for long-range capital planning as well, usually relying on MassDOT instead. In the case of Blue Hill Avenue, the city of Boston led the project. Any investment in planning capacity at the T will easily be repaid when the Commonwealth can leverage additional federal funding.

We can see from other states that the FTA is more than willing to work with state and agency planners to assure that projects meet eligibility requirements and guide them through the proposal stage. In Massachusetts, we tend to submit just one project at a time—often with years of planning during which we receive no funding—rather than submitting multiple deserving candidates. Without matching grants from the federal government, our go-it-alone investment in major projects, like South Coast Rail, only goes half as far as it could.

Federal funding needn’t focus solely on the Boston area. In Washington, the funds are spread across the state, for bus and rail lines in Seattle and also for BRT projects in Everett, Vancouver, and Spokane. This would be akin to the Bay State receiving millions of dollars to build BRT in cities like Worcester and Springfield and improve east-west rail connections, in addition to Boston-based priorities like Green Line Transformation, regional rail electrification, BRT on multiple busy bus corridors, and the Red-Blue connector.

It was encouraging to hear MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak promote applications for RAISE funding at the recent MBTA board meeting. We hope this sentiment will lead us to catch up with other states. With a “shelf full of projects that can be ready to go within the timeframe envisioned in [the infrastructure] bill”, as the GM recently said in the Globe, it stands to reason that applying for the existing CIG funding program is the immediate next step.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
Meet the Author

Julia Wallerce

Boston program manager, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy
To do this, Massachusetts needs a short- and long-term strategy to make sure we are prepared to fully leverage federal funding for our transportation system. This would begin with a robust planning department at the T and a goal of submitting multiple CIG New Starts, Small Starts and Core Capacity projects for federal funding. By applying for multiple FTA Capital Investment Grants at a time, we can seize billion-dollar opportunities to build the world class, 21st-century transportation system we need.

Ari Ofsevit is a senior program associate at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and a board member at TransitMatters. Julia Wallerce is the Boston program manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and board chair at the Livable Streets Alliance.