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Transit-Oriented Planning Grants Begin to Change Cities

A pilot program has gradually amassed more than $100 million in Federal Transit Administration grants, which are laying the groundwork for land use projects that promote mobility and affordability.

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The city of Tempe, Ariz., has worked with Valley Metro, the transit authority for the greater Phoenix region, to plan for future development around the city's streetcar, which opened a 3-mile route earlier this year. (Valley Metro)
For the last decade, Woodlawn United, a nonprofit group in Birmingham, Ala., has been working to revitalize its corner of the city and secure long-term accessibility for the people who’ve built their lives there.

The group works in Woodlawn, a northeast Birmingham neighborhood that’s seen decades of disinvestment since the deindustrialization and white flight of the mid-20th century, says Joe Ayers, the group’s real estate director. Its approach is modeled on the East Lake Initiative in Atlanta, a three-pronged revitalization effort focused on education and community wellness as well as physical redevelopment of property.

Ayers says it’s also hoping to learn from that effort’s shortcomings: how the improvements in income and educational attainment in the target area were accompanied by a substantial decrease in Black residents and increase in white residents — what one Urban Institute study described as “changes of people rather than changes for people.” Woodlawn United has focused on buying and banking property to create long-term opportunities for affordable housing even as the neighborhood improves.

“What we want to focus on is not displacing folks but allowing them to grow along with the community,” Ayers says.

Now Woodlawn United is working on a potential large-scale development — around 75 units of mixed-income housing — near the eastern end of Birmingham’s first bus rapid transit line. The work is supported by a Federal Transit Administration planning grant awarded last month to the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority. The $1.6 million grant is part of the FTA’s Pilot Program for Transit-Oriented Development Planning, which, despite the name, is not really a pilot program anymore, according to FTA Deputy Administrator Veronica Vanterpool.

TOD planning grants tend to be small and fly under the radar — the $1.6 million grant to Birmingham was the biggest issued this year — but since 2015, when it was created, the program has gradually awarded more than $100 million to cities around the country. Recipients and FTA officials say the grants have helped lay the groundwork for development projects and land use policies that promote mobility and affordability, and have helped cities apply for more competitive awards.

“How do we show the value of dense, opportunity-rich environments around transit, and how do we encourage more people to use our transit systems?” Vanterpool says. “We want to make transit affordable, and we’re also invested in making our communities livable places for people of all different incomes and abilities and ages.”

Transit-Oriented Planning in Car Country

One of the first places to receive a TOD planning grant under the pilot program was Tempe, Ariz., a city of 180,000 people that’s home to Arizona State University. The city, just outside of Phoenix, had reached its growth boundaries decades prior, and was somewhat ahead of the rest of the region in thinking about how to build density in places near transit, says Eric Iwersen, Tempe’s transit manager. With nascent plans to build Tempe Streetcar, the city was “beyond ready” to create more transit-oriented land use policies, Iwersen says.

“We had to start looking at more efficient ways to handle our transportation needs,” he says. “We’d already put some pieces in place when we applied for this grant, but we wanted this grant to propel us even further in that conversation.”

Valley Metro, the Phoenix-based transit authority, already ran light rail service through Tempe and other surrounding communities. The city of Tempe worked with Valley Metro to plan for future development around the proposed route of the Tempe Streetcar, which opened a 3-mile route earlier this year and is already planning an expansion. The resulting transportation overlay district promotes denser development in areas within a half-mile of most rail and streetcar stations. Iwersen says the city would like to see the overlay expanded to a one-mile radius, but so far hasn’t gotten consensus on that proposal.

“We are the highest-density land use city in the state," he says. "We have the highest per-capita transit ridership in the state. So we think that building our land use to support public transit works."

Capitalizing on Bus Rapid Transit 

In Pittsburgh, which has one of the earliest and best bus rapid transit systems in the U.S., area public agencies have received three TOD planning grants under the FTA’s pilot program since 2015. Two grants have been awarded to Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) for planning work along its East Busway, a dedicated bus corridor serving downtown Pittsburgh and the eastern suburbs.

Moira Egler, PRT’s program manager for place-based planning, says one of the grants has been used to study potential new station locations along the busway and to develop high-level conceptual plans for the stations. It was also used to begin planning for a potential large-scale development project on PRT-owned land near Wilkinsburg Station, a major hub with a large surface-parking lot.

The agency is planning to do another round of community meetings for the first grant next year, looking partly at how Wilkinsburg Station and new potential stations can be made more accessible, Egler says. A planning grant that PRT received in 2021 will be used to study transit-oriented development along a potential extension of the East Busway in the Upper Monongahela Valley. That work isn’t likely to begin until 2024, Egler says. But the planning grants have funded studies that help the agency raise more funds for implementation.
A conceptual drawing of a transit-oriented development project known as the East Busway, a dedicated bus corridor serving downtown Pittsburgh and the eastern suburbs. (Urban Design Associates)
“We do get a very rough order-of-magnitude cost estimate from these plans, so that helps us craft grant opportunities,” Egler says. “And we also have a pretty extensive public process that we do during these plans. So it’s helpful for us to demonstrate that the community has bought in and it’s something they’re on board with. They’re definitely very helpful for future funding opportunities.”

Stalled Projects, Better Public Coordination

Among the first round of grantees was Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.,, which in 2015 was weighing a proposal to create a 2.7-mile streetcar through its downtown. The city received a $1.25 million planning grant to create a Multimodal Community Planning Study looking at ways that TOD policies could connect the streetcar with other parts of the transportation network.

Ultimately the streetcar project was canceled because of concerns over its cost — an “expensive failure,” as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel described it, after $33.7 million of public money was spent on planning the project that never moved forward. But Karen Warfel, a program manager in the city of Ft. Lauderdale’s transportation planning division, says the process of completing the planning study built stronger relationships between different jurisdictions, which have resulted in a better approach to TOD policymaking even without the addition of the streetcar.

“Sitting us all down in a room together — county, city and state officials — to talk about why we have the policies we do and how we can work together better was really invaluable,” Warfel says. “Has it all been fixed? No. But we’ve created a partnership.”

To date, the Pilot Program for Transit-Oriented Development Planning has awarded 129 grants. Under the bipartisan infrastructure deal in 2021, the program was increased by 38 percent, with $69 million dedicated to grants over the next five years, according to Vanterpool. With an average grant size of less than $1 million, it’s a program that can make a small difference in a lot of places. In Birmingham, for example, it’s a chance to do long-range planning in a fast-changing community with new, high-quality transit access. That’s good for both the community and the transit system, Vanterpool says.

“What we’re seeing is more successful transit projects as a result of TOD planning," she says, "because it’s starting earlier and it’s more inclusive."
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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