WASHINGTON — Ben Cayetano says the bus rapid transit system he plans to implement instead of rail if elected mayor will be in line for some of the same federal funding as the project it’s replacing.

That’s because, Cayetano’s campaign says, a new federal law that took effect Oct. 1 changes the definitions of “bus rapid transit” and “fixed guideway” in such a way that elements of Cayetano’s FAST plan are now eligible for up to 80 percent federal support.

Here’s a tweet Cayetano For Mayor sent out during a “FAST Forum” at Kalani High School Tuesday night that exemplifies this mentality.

A “cheat sheet” produced by one industry publication seems to lend some credence to the idea. But a closer look at the actual changes to the law — and a conversation with a Honolulu official well-versed in federal funding rules — suggests Cayetano’s campaign might be overly optimistic about the likelihood of help from Washington, D.C.

The issue is scheduled for a public airing during Thursday afternoon’s meeting of the Honolulu City Council‘s Transportation Committee. Chair Breene Harimoto has asked for a discussion-only update on the new federal surface transportation act known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or “MAP-21” for short.

“Because certain individuals always say MAP-21 says this or MAP-21 allows this, it occurs to me that we should get a factual presentation on what this means for us,” Harimoto told Civil Beat Tuesday. “I’m expecting a lot of the questions will focus on rail and BRT.”

Harimoto, who is pro-rail, considered inviting the Federal Transit Administration to share the details of the new law but decided the cost of flying someone to Hawaii was too high. And, he said, either city Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka or a representative of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation would be viewed by some as too pro-rail to be impartial.

“Politics being what it is, we thought it wasn’t the best idea to have them present it,” Harimoto said.

So the man providing the answers Thursday will be Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Brian Gibson, who told Civil Beat he views OMPO as “not an advocate for a specific project, but rather the organization that, we strive to provide for our policy-makers, our decision-makers, an understanding of the impacts of their choices.”

“We can go with rail; there’s costs and there’s benefits. We can go with BRT; there’s costs and there’s benefits,” Gibson said Tuesday. “We want to, in an objective way, provide the data that the policy-makers need to make good choices.”

Metropolitan planning organizations like OMPO exist across the country and are mandated for all large cities. Each serves as a liaison between the federal government and local agencies on matters of transportation projects and programs, and is therefore well-versed in federal funding rules and requirements.

“In terms of the federal regulations, that is the role that we play. We’re the gatekeeper for those federal funds,” Gibson said. “MPOs were created, historically speaking, to give a voice to the public and local jurisdictions in the transportation planning process.”

Gibson said his presentation Thursday will focus on the broad strokes of MAP-21, which includes sections on far-ranging issues. The law deals with everything from environmental streamlining to freight transportation, and Gibson is going to talk about the big-picture impacts to Hawaii on all of those fronts.

But he anticipates BRT will come up as council members ask him questions.

“BRT would be eligible for some funding under specific circumstances,” he said. “The way MAP-21 seems to treat BRT is essentially as, I’m doing small quotation fingers now, ‘a poor man’s rail.’

“I think the idea from the feds is that BRT is rail-minus. It’s sort of that transition between buses and rail, and so they’re looking for investments in the corridors. Stations and ticketing machines and a dedicated right-of-way,” he said. “I’ve heard people talk about BRT would be more flexible. Well, not really, because under the federal definition, we would be required to make investments in specific corridors.”

The text of the new law bears this out. The definition of BRT is spelled out explicitly:

The term ‘bus rapid transit system’ means a bus transit system—
(A) in which the majority of each line operates in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation use during peak periods; and
(B) that includes features that emulate the services provided by rail fixed guideway public transportation systems, including—
(i) defined stations;
(ii) traffic signal priority for public transportation vehicles;
(iii) short headway bidirectional services for a substantial part of weekdays and weekend days; and
(iv) any other features the Secretary may determine are necessary to produce highquality public transportation services that emulate the services provided by rail fixed guideway public transportation systems.

The question, then: Does Cayetano’s “flexible, affordable, smart transportation” plan meet the criteria?

Yes, says Panos Prevedouros, who sat down with Civil Beat last week to provide details on the FAST plan.

Prevedouros told Civil Beat MAP-21 opens up access to funds which used to be used exclusively for steel-on-steel rail or light rail.

“Now BRT is equal to all those systems in terms of funding,” he said in a follow-up phone interview Tuesday. “It’s a different project, but it’s the same pot of money.

“A lane that you contra-flowed it and gave it to bus, it’s a dedicated lane. If you do this for two hours consistently in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, it fully counts,” Prevedouros said. “I think one of our best shots is this idea for Aloha Express.”

That line would go from Aloha Stadium to Downtown Honolulu in 16 to 20 minutes. Prevedouros says it’s possible to make room for more buses in the zipper lane without degrading the flow in those lanes.

“I believe that it is quite possible to justify BRT service for 80 percent funding from the FTA if nine-tenths of the route or better is done on a priority lane, essentially on free-flow conditions,” he said. “Zipper does that.”

Indeed, the new law does create a new “special rule” for fixed guideway bus rapid transit projects, allowing the U.S. Department of Transportation to identify three BRT projects each year to get 80 percent of their costs covered by the feds. And Prevedouros’ nine-tenths reference would seem to satisfy the requirement that the majority of a line be BRT.

Where the Aloha Express and other elements of Cayetano’s plan may fall short of the definition for federal-funding-eligible BRT is that the line is not “in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation.”

Prevedouros believes a zipper lane with both buses and carpoolers counts as a dedicated right-of-way as long as the traffic flows smoothly because the FTA doesn’t want the lanes to be under-used.

“They have been burnt with exclusive bus lanes unless the line has very high projected ridership,” he said. “Mid-day if you send one bus every 10 minutes, that lane is essentially permanently empty, and that’s a very poor use of public resources.

“Basically, BRT qualifies with signal prioritization. From there on, every time that you provide clear priority to BRT service, you qualify as a BRT,” he said. “If they want to contradict their document, that’s something to be discussed, but it’s pretty clear what their definition of BRT is.

“It is really a win-win for the FTA because we’re establishing BRT service at very little cost to them, he said. “Who in their right mind would object to any of this being accomplished?”

It’s too early for the FTA to weigh in on a hypothetical plan, so it’s not clear what the position on Cayetano’s BRT would be. The agency has stayed out of local politics except to say robust local support is a necessary component of any project seeking federal funding.

Gibson says it’s presumptuous to assume the BRT plan as currently discussed will automatically qualify for federal funding.

“In my opinion, the way the feds have defined it, I don’t see BRT being more flexible than rail. It’s still a fixed guideway transit service,” he said. “I don’t know if the local people who are touting BRT have the same vision in their head as the feds did when they were writing MAP-21.”

Gibson also said the missing aspect of the rail-BRT debate so far has been the arduous process that is a federal funding application.

“Right now we’re basically at the head of the line for rail. If the city decides to walk away from rail and go to BRT, we go to the back of the line, and there’s a process that we have to go through,” he said. “In fact, in MAP-21, it basically states that applying for … a capital investment pot of money, it’s a multi-year process with many applications.”

Walking away from rail now, he said, “we’re giving up our space at the front of the line and starting all over again in terms of applying for federal funds.”

“Can it be done? Sure, it can be done. Is the funding going to be available quickly? No, I think it’s going to probably take years for the funding to be made available, at least on the federal side.”

Prevedouros scoffs at the idea of a top and bottom of any proverbial queue for federal funding. He said the timeline is determined by “how quickly you prepare your environmental documents and approvals,” and said FAST is well-equipped to glide through the process.

Where Gibson and Prevedouros do agree is that Honolulu won’t be receiving anywhere near $1.55 billion from the FTA if it drops rail and goes with BRT. Cayetano’s FAST plan flyover and underpasses wouldn’t qualify for this type of funding, and those are the largest infrastructure components of the system.

Prevedouros said that’s exactly why the FTA might be interested in buying Honolulu new buses.

“The money we save FTA, they would be more than happy to give us a fraction of that for BRT,” he said.

Harimoto didn’t invite Prevedouros or Cayetano to speak at Thursday’s meeting for the same reason he didn’t ask HART — it’s too politicized.

But, he said, they’re welcome to come testify just like everybody else.

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