Transportation

New Light Rail Vehicles Come to San Francisco, Plus the Wilderness of Transportation Finance

The City of San Francisco is celebrating a major milestone with a once-in-a-generation new light rail train now in service, as shown in the above video from our partners at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni).  Muni reports:

These… trains are more comfortable, reliable, and rider-friendly. They include a new seating configuration that will provide wider aisles for more capacity, better customer signage, quieter cars and improved design that will reduce delays.  This new car represents the first of more than 200 vehicles that will add more train service that will reduce congestion, improve service frequency and overall service for hundreds of thousands of daily riders.

So: as the nine-county Bay Area’s transportation financing agency, did MTC help pay for these new vehicles? The answer is: yes, mostly, and then not exactly, and then mostly again… but… it’s complicated.

GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING: Esoteric transportation finance wonkery to follow.

The following run-down from Glen Tepke and Rob Jaques in MTC's Programming & Allocations section explains further: 

When Muni says “more than 200 vehicles”, in practice this means 151 replacement vehicles (to take the place of old cars) and 64 expansion vehicles (additional cars that will add capacity). The initial cars being delivered now are expansion cars (because the old cars are not yet old enough to be eligible for replacement, more details on this below). 

The cost for 40 of the 64 expansion cars is $210 million; the primary funding source for this piece is state cap & trade funds (the Transit & Intercity Rail Capital Program, or TIRCP, to be specific). However, because the state distributes TIRCP funds in smaller chunks spread over multiple years, Muni could not get the state to commit all $210 million up front. So MTC fronted $153 million of Federal Transit Administration and bridge toll funds, and Muni fronted $57 million of their own funds, so there were sufficient funding commitments to award the contract. 

As the state awards TIRCP funds, MTC uses these funds to replace the previously “fronted” MTC funds (about $86 million so far). These MTC funds are then redirected to other projects. If all goes according to plan and the state eventually awards the total $210 million amount, MTC will take back $153 million and Muni will take back $57 million, and the expansion cars will (eventually) be entirely state funded. For these 40 expansion vehicles, MTC could be characterized as facilitating funding for the project, or as providing interim bridge funding.

When the replacement cars start to be delivered, those will be mostly funded by MTC. This will not happen for a little while, however, because the first of the Muni Breda light rail vehicles (the Breda LRV 2) went into service in 1997 and won’t be eligible for replacement until Fiscal Year 2022. That is about when the 1:1 replacement of the old light rail vehicles will begin. The full replacement, based on the useful life of the Breda cars, should be complete around Fiscal Year 2028. The replacements should cost around $500 million, of which MTC typically programs the 75-80 percent Federal share from FTA Formula funds.

What about those other 24 expansion vehicles? Those cars are funded mostly with Muni local funds, and some FTA New Starts funds, for the additional cars required for the Central Subway project.

Phew! Aren’t you glad you kept reading?

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