The Washington Post recently ran an article exploring the impact of the Federal Transit Administration on transit projects. Fierce competition for the FTA’s limited transit funding and strict criteria mean that states are forced to make many changes, wise or unwise, to their projects to qualify. Virginia had to drop plans to put the Tyson’s Corner segment of the planned Metro line underground because the FTA did not think it sufficiently cost effective, and the Dulles segment may be delayed or blocked, also for cost effectiveness reasons.

It’s appropriate for planners to justify the cost effectiveness of projects, but transit and highway construction operate under totally different requirements. Maryland is moving forward full speed with the $3-4 billion Intercounty Connector, a highway through outer suburbs that will only exacerbate sprawl, but the Purple Line, a light rail line that would run from New Carrollton through the University of Maryland to employment centers in Silver Spring and Bethesda, waits for detailed ridership studies that would satisfy the FTA, and can’t use heavy rail or run underground despite the wishes of many of the communities along the route. (Here’s a great series on the Purple Line, its history and political obstacles.)

The Post explains,

Unlike federal highway funds, which states receive based on a formula and may spend as they wish, money for new transit projects is awarded at the discretion of the FTA. The agency doesn’t have much to dole out. The FTA has proposed spending about $1.4 billion on new transit projects next fiscal year, compared with $42 billion that states will receive for highway maintenance and construction, according to federal figures. More than 100 transit projects across the country are expected to compete for federal money in coming years, according to a federal report.

In other words, there is 30 times as much federal money available for highways as for transit, regardless of the relative merit of the projects. Transit Miami shows it very simply:

If transit projects have to prove their value, then let’s force highways to do the same. If we’re going to give states money to use as they wish or automatically match funds they spend on highways, then let them use the money for transit instead if they choose. But as long as transit projects fight over a tiny pie while highways get built without a thought, our living environment will only worsen.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.