We recently savored a breath of fresh air from an unlikely place -- the Transportation Department -- and it gave us renewed hope that the Obama administration might be able to restore some balance to what passes for transportation planning in Washington.

In a Washington speech a month ago, and in documents released at the time, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a major shift in the way the DOT's Federal Transit Administration will evaluate federal funding proposals for light rail, trolley and other transit.

Under procedures adopted by the Bush administration in 2005, the key criterion has been "cost effectiveness." This approach gave the edge to proposals projected to attract the highest ridership and/or shortest travel times per federal dollar.

The Obama administration has tossed it out.

In a blog post, LaHood said the old approach was too narrow because it didn't take into account other attributes or social benefits, what he called "livability" issues.

Henceforth, he said, the DOT will look at broader criteria that reflect what communities want from transit, including economic development opportunities and environmental benefits.

This doesn't mean that every pie-in-the-sky idea will get funding. As LaHood put it, "Obviously, we still must evaluate a project's ability to move people from one place to another. But now we can add to the mix how new transit ideas can help communities reduce their carbon footprints, spur economic activity and relieve congestion. It's what people want, and it just makes sense."

People in the transit community welcomed the move. We welcome it, too, and not just for its impact on local transit systems.

We particularly welcome the prospect that a transportation secretary would entertain the idea of doing something because "it's what people want."

We also welcome the prospect that this policy shift could open the door for similar changes in the way federal and state transport planners approach infrastructure issues affecting air, rail and highway travel.

If this way of thinking has the effect of elevating the needs of the traveling public over "cost effectiveness," we'd be very happy to see it spread.

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