Inquirer: Eased federal rules a boon for local transit plans

Inquirer: Eased federal rules a boon for local transit plans

By Paul Nussbaum,Inquirer Staff Writer

Proposed rail projects on the Philadelphia waterfront and in South Jersey got a significant boost yesterday when federal transportation officials announced plans to rescind Bush administration restrictions on transit spending.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the Obama administration wanted greater flexibility to pay for transit projects that could provide an economic boost or benefit the environment.

That could make it easier to get federal money for a proposed $1.5 billion light-rail line from Camden to Gloucester County and for a $500 million light-rail line along the Philadelphia waterfront.

The Delaware River Port Authority, which is planning the projects, had acknowledged they likely would not qualify for federal aid under existing rules.

Projects being developed by SEPTA and NJ Transit could also benefit from the proposed policy change, officials said.

“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” LaHood said yesterday at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities, and how it makes our communities better places to live.”

The Bush administration, which believed transit systems should rely less on federal funding, in 2005 restricted federal grants to projects that could show significant reductions in commute times in comparison with costs.

The new approach, said Federal Transit Administration chief Peter Rogoff, “will help us do a much better job of aligning our priorities and values with our transit investments. No longer will we ignore the many benefits that accrue to our environment and our communities when we build or expand rail and bus rapid-transit systems.”

The $500 million Philadelphia light-rail project would operate on tracks in the middle of Columbus Boulevard between Pier 70 and Girard Avenue. The route would provide service between the two casinos planned for the waterfront, Foxwoods in the south and SugarHouse in the north.

A Market Street light-rail line would run from City Hall to the waterfront line.

The waterfront trolleys could be running by 2016 if funding is available, DRPA officials have said.

The $1.5 billion South Jersey project is proposed to run 18 miles alongside a Conrail freight line and serve Glassboro, Pitman, Mantua, Wenonah, Woodbury, Deptford, West Deptford, Westville, Bellmawr, Brooklawn, and Gloucester City.

The line would connect to PATCO and River Line trains at the Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, where passengers could catch trains to Philadelphia or Trenton.

The first leg, between Camden and Woodbury, could be operational in five years.

Gov. Corzine committed $500 million in state funding to help build the line, and transit officials said they hoped to get state, federal, and corporate funding for the rest.

Most of the DRPA’s money comes from tolls paid by drivers who cross the agency’s four bridges over the Delaware River.

Without substantial federal aid, the most likely source of money for the rail lines would be higher bridge tolls. Auto tolls are scheduled to rise by $1, to $5, on July 1, 2011. That revenue is committed to paying off existing debt and maintenance and repair projects that are already scheduled.

The new policy won’t take effect until the FTA prepares rules and a 60-day public comment period is held. The rule-making process could take at least six months.

“Hopefully, it’s good news for us,” SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said yesterday, “but we just don’t know yet what the rules are going to be.”

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