Frequently Asked Questions: Urban Circulator

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On December 8, 2009, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced the availability of Section 5309 funds for exempt discretionary grants for Urban Circulator Systems which support the Department of Transportation Livability Initiative. Visit the Notices of Funding Availablility page for more information not answered below.

This webpage will help answer some of the questions potential grantees may have about the program. Click a question below to find out more information.

Q: What is the Department of Transportation's Livability Initiative?

A: On June 16, 2009, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson announced a new partnership to help American families in all communities #- rural, suburban and urban # gain better access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs.

DOT, HUD and EPA created a high-level interagency partnership to better coordinate federal transportation, environmental protection, and housing investments.

Through the Urban Circulator Program grants, FTA will invest in a limited number of projects that fulfill the six livability principles that serve as the foundation for the DOT-HUD-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities:

  1. Provide more transportation choices
  2. Promote equitable, affordable housing
  3. Enhance economic competitiveness
  4. Support existing communities
  5. Coordinate policies and leverage investment
  6. Value communities and neighborhoods

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Q: Why did FTA announce the availability of funds for Urban Circulators?

A: Improving mobility and shaping America's future by ensuring that the transportation system is accessible, integrated, and efficient, and offers flexibility of choices is a key strategic goal of DOT. FTA is committed to creating livable communities that improve the quality of life for all Americans. Urban circulator systems such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolley lines provide a transportation option that connects urban destinations and fosters the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high density environments.

By using available funds for these specific types of projects, FTA and DOT can support tangible livability improvements within existing programs while demonstrating the feasibility and value of such improvements. These demonstrations can provide a sound basis for advancing greater investments in the future. In addition, the program builds on the momentum generated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 and can help inform Administration and Congressional decision makers on program structure for reauthorization.

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Q: What is an Urban Circulator System?

A: Urban circulator systems such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolley lines provide a transportation option that connects urban destinations and foster the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high density environments.

Typically, an urban circulator operates regular service within a closed loop # usually 3 miles or shorter in length # and serves an urban area such as the Portland Streetcar, the Denver 16th Street shuttlebus or the Lynx LYMMO in Orlando which is a bus-based fixed guideway. FTA believes projects that provide circulation through an urban area qualify, whether or not they have an actual loop as long as they follow a course that returns to the starting point and distributes riders around the area.

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Q: How much money is available for the Urban Circulator Program?

A: FTA is making available $130 million in unallocated Discretionary New Starts/Small Starts Program funds, authorized by 49 USC § 5309 (as amended by Section 3011 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy For Users (SAFETEA-LU), Pub. L. 109-59, August 10, 2005).

FTA may use additional Section 5309 Capital Investment discretionary funding that becomes available for allocation to further support this initiative.

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Q: What are Section 5309 Capital Investment discretionary funds?

A: "Section 5309 funds" refer to the Capital Investment grant funds authorized under 49 U.S.C. 5309.  The Secretary may make grants under Section 5309  to assist State and local governmental authorities in financing new fixed guideway capital projects, extensions to existing fixed guideway systems, or corridor based bus investments including the acquisition of real property, the initial acquisition of rolling stock for the systems, the acquisition of rights-of-way, and relocation.

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Q: Are there statutory requirements that must be met to use Section 5309 Capital Investment discretionary funds?

A: Yes. To be eligible for funding under Section 5309, a project must be based on the results of an alternative analysis and preliminary engineering.  In addition, a project must meet one of the following guideway criteria:

  • Be a fixed guideway for at least 50% of the project length in the peak period OR
  • Be a corridor-based bus project with the following minimum elements:
    • Substantial Transit Stations
    • Signal Priority/Pre-emption (for Bus/LRT)
    • Low Floor / Level Boarding Vehicles
    • Special Branding of Service
    • Frequent Service - 10 min peak/15 min off peak
    • Service offered at least 14 hours per day

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Q: What is a fixed guideway?

A: 49 U.S.C. 5302(a)(4) defines a "fixed guideway" as a public transportation facility that uses and occupies a separate right-of-way or rail for the exclusive use of public transportation and other high occupancy vehicles OR uses a fixed catenary system and a right of way usable by other forms of transportation.

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Q: What is an Alternatives Analysis?

A: An alternatives analysis is a study conducted as part of the metropolitan or statewide transportation planning process that includes an assessment of a wide range of public transportation alternatives designed to address a transportation problem in a corridor or subarea.

For the purposes of approving projects under the Section 5309 Capital Investment program, FTA must also ensure the Alternatives Analysis results in the selection of a locally preferred alternative and the adoption of the locally preferred alternative into the long-range transportation plan required under 49 USC 5303.

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Q: Would a feasibility study meet the requirement for an Alternatives Analysis?

A: A feasibility study would meet the Alternatives Analysis requirement if it assessed a range of alternative urban circulators, provided information on the transportation benefits of the project as well as the impact of the project on the proposed corridor's economic development and land use, and identified the capital and operating costs of the project and the sources of capital and operating funding.

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Q: What does it mean that the Urban Circulator Discretionary grants would be for exempt projects?

A: Capital investment projects receiving less than $25,000,000 in Section 5309 federal assistance are considered exempt from the evaluation criteria and rating process pursuant to Section 5309(e)(1)(B).  Thus, the projects funded with the Urban Circulator grants would only be rated on the livability criteria listed in the Federal Register notice.

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Q: Is the maximum grant for an Urban Circulator less than $25 million?

A: Yes. In order for the project to be considered exempt from evaluation and rating under the statutory New Starts and Small Starts criteria, the maximum grant for an Urban Circulator can be no greater than $25 million.  FTA will provide up to 80% of the net project capital cost; however the amount of Section 5309 Capital Investment funds requested should be no greater than $25 million for each urban circulator project. Other Federal funds that are eligible to be expended for transportation capital projects can be applied to the project.

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Q: Will FTA approve a deferred local share as the match under this program?

A: FTA will not approve deferred local share under this program.

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Q: What criteria will be used to evaluate Urban Circulator projects?

A: FTA will assess the extent to which an urban circulator project produces one or more of the following outcomes.

  1. Livability: Livability investments are projects that not only deliver transportation benefits, but are also designed and planned in such a way that they have a positive impact on qualitative measures of community life. This element delivers benefits that are inherently difficult to measure. However, it is implicit to livability that its benefits are shared and therefore magnified by the number of potential users in the affected community. Therefore, descriptions of how projects enhance livability should include a description of the affected community and the scale of the project's impact, including existing transit ridership and projected transit ridership that will result from the project. In order to determine whether a project improves the quality of the living and working environment of a community, FTA will qualitatively assess whether the project:
    1. Will significantly enhance accessibility through the creation of more convenient transportation options for travelers;
    2. Will improve existing transportation choices by enhancing points of modal connectivity;
    3. Will improve accessibility and transport services for economically disadvantaged populations, non-drivers, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities.
    4. Is the result of a planning process which coordinated transportation and land-use planning decisions and encouraged community participation in the process.

FTA will also assess whether there is existing or planned mixed income housing, including low income housing, within walking distance of the project. In addition, particular attention will be paid to the degree to which the proposed project contributes significantly to broader traveler accessibility through intermodal connections or improved connections between residential and commercial areas. Consequently the application should clearly identify how the project will connect redeveloping or new neighborhoods on vacant or underutilized land to each other or to major attractors in the central city or how circulator or connector lines under the project will connect developed neighborhoods with one another or with the business district in the central city. Applications should also note proposed strategies to deliver high quality pedestrian environments in the corridor.

  1. Sustainability: In order to determine whether a project promotes a more environmentally sustainable transportation system, i.e., reducing reliance on automobile travel, improving the pedestrian and walk environment of a community and using environmental design techniques in the planning, construction, and operation of the project, FTA will assess the project's ability to:
    1. Improve energy efficiency or reduce energy consumption/green house gas emissions; applicants are encouraged to provide information regarding the expected use of clean or alternative sources of energy; projects which introduce new technology through innovative and improved products such as those which involve energy saving propulsion technologies within the eligible major capital investment criteria or that demonstrate a projected decrease in the movement of people by less energy-efficient vehicles or systems will be given priority under this factor; and
    2. Maintain, protect or enhance the environment, as evidenced by environmentally friendly policies and practices utilized in the project design, construction, and operation that exceed the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act including items such as whether the project uses a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified design, the vehicles or facilities are rated with the energy-star, the project uses a brownfield, construction equipment is retrofitted with catalytic converters, the project utilizes recycled materials, the project includes elements to conserve energy, such as passive solar heating, solar panels, wind turbines, reflective roofing or paving materials, or other advanced environmental design elements such as a green roof, etc.
  2. Economic Development: FTA will assess whether the project will foster redevelopment adjacent to the project for which assistance is being sought. In addition, FTA will assess whether existing plans, policies, and incentives promote economic development and transit supportive development that provides jobs and services within the community, and whether there is demonstrated progress towards achieving mixed use development, at those locations specifically served by the proposed project.
  3. Leveraging of public and private investments.
    1. Jurisdictional & Stakeholder Collaboration: To measure a project's alignment with this criterion, FTA will assess the project's involvement of non-Federal entities and the use of non-Federal funds, including the scope of involvement and share of total funding. FTA will give priority to projects that receive financial commitments from, or otherwise involve, State and local governments, other public entities, or private or nonprofit entities, including projects that engage parties that are not traditionally involved in transportation projects, such as nonprofit community groups or the private owners of real property abutting the project. FTA will assess the amount of private debt and equity to be invested in the project or the amount of co-investment from State, local or other non-profit sources.
    2. Disciplinary Integration: Livability incorporates the concept of collaborative decision-making. To promote collaboration on the objectives outlined in this notice and to demonstrate the value of partnerships across government agencies that serve the various public service missions FTA will give priority to projects that are supported, financially or otherwise, by non-transportation public agencies that are pursuing similar objectives and are aligning their community development activities to increase the efficiency of Federal investments. FTA will give priority to transportation projects that are supported by relevant public housing agencies, or transportation projects that encourage energy efficiency or improve the environment and are supported by relevant public agencies with energy or environmental missions.

Applicants are encouraged to demonstrate the responsiveness of a project to any and all of the selection criteria with the most relevant information that applicants can provide, regardless of whether such information  regardless of whether such information has been specifically requested, or identified, in the Federal Register notice.

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Q: What else will FTA consider in its selection of projects to be awarded funding?

A: When selecting projects to be awarded funding, FTA will consider whether the project can begin construction within eighteen months of receipt of the discretionary grant and whether the applicant demonstrates the ability to carry out the proposed project successfully.

Applicants must have basic technical, legal, and financial capacity as a precondition of grant award as evidenced by:

  1. Project Schedule: A feasible and sufficiently detailed project schedule demonstrating that the project can begin construction within eighteen months of receipt of a Discretionary Grant and that the Grant Funds will be spent steadily and expeditiously once construction starts.
  2. Environmental Approvals: Receipt (or reasonably anticipated receipt) of all environmental approvals necessary for the project to proceed to construction on the timeline specified in the project schedule, including satisfaction of all Federal, State and local requirements and completion of the National Environmental Policy Act process. Applicants must consult with their FTA regional office to determine the feasibility of a reasonably anticipated receipt of an environmental decision on the proposed project.
  3. Legislative Approvals: Receipt of all necessary legislative approvals. The project application must demonstrate: 1) that development or redevelopment agreements are in place with respect to the project; 2) land use policies complementary to the project have been adopted for land in close proximity to the project; and 3) property zoned to accommodate mixed-use development is available adjacent to the project.
  4. State and Local Planning: The project must be included in the relevant State, metropolitan, and local planning documents. All regionally significant projects requiring an action by FTA must be in the metropolitan transportation plan, Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). A project will not receive an Urban Circulator Discretionary Grant until it is included in the metropolitan transportation plan (where applicable), TIP and/or STIP.
  5. Technical Feasibility: The technical feasibility of the project, including completion of sufficient engineering and design.
  6. Financial Feasibility: The viability and completeness of the project's financing package, including evidence of stable and reliable financial commitments and contingency reserves, as appropriate, and evidence of the grant recipient's ability to manage grants.

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Q: What would be eligible expenses under the Urban Circulator program?

A: Section 5309(b) grants authority to the Secretary to make capital grants to assist State and local governmental authorities in financing new fixed guideway capital projects, extensions to existing fixed guideway systems, or corridor based bus investments including the acquisition of real property, the initial acquisition of rolling stock for the systems, the acquisition of rights-of-way, and relocation.  Operating funding is not an eligible expense under the program.

Although Section 5309 also allows the Secretary to make grants for fixed guideway corridor development for projects in the advanced stages of alternatives analysis or preliminary engineering, due to the limited amount of funds available, FTA is limiting awards under the Urban Circulator program to final design and construction activities only.

Section 5309 funds cannot be used to reimburse grantees that have incurred prior expenses for the project absent evidence that FTA had issued a Letter of No Prejudice (LONP) for the project prior to the costs being incurred. There is no blanket pre-award authority for projects to be funded under this announcement prior to the identification in the Federal Register of selected projects.

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Q: Would completion of the National Environmental Policy Act process be an eligible expense under the Urban Circulator Program?

A: Because FTA seeks to fund Urban Circulator projects which can begin construction within eighteen months of receipt of a Discretionary Grant, FTA is limiting awards under the Urban Circulator program to final design and construction activities only.  Projects which have not begun the environmental review process would not be competitive for this program.

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Q: Can Section 5309 Discretionary Grants for Urban Circulators be used to pay for engineering or design work, research and development, or technology development?

A: Due to the limited amount of funds, FTA is limiting award of funding to final design and construction activities, including acquisition of property, rolling stock and right-of way.  Research and development, technology development, and planning studies such as alternatives analysis will not be funded with this grant program.

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Q: Can Section 5309 Discretionary Grants for Urban Circulators be used to purchase an existing infrastructure facility or right-of-way?

A: Section 5309 Discretionary Grants for Urban Circulators can be used for the purchase of an existing infrastructure facility or right-of-way only if they are clearly elements of an urban circulator project.

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Q: Can Section 5309 Discretionary Grants for Urban Circulators be used for the purchase of new buses, streetcars, trains or other vehicles?

A: Section 5309 Discretionary Grants for Urban Circulators can be used for the purchase of new buses, streetcars, trains or other vehicles only if the vehicles are an element of an urban circulator project that includes construction of a new fixed guidway, an extension to an existing fixed guidway, or a corridor based bus system.  FTA will not award Urban Circulator grants solely for vehicle acquisitions.  A project sponsor could use the entire award for vehicle acquisition if the vehicle acquisition were part of an urban circulator project. 

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Q: Does a project need to be ready for construction to be awarded a Section 5309 Discretionary Grant for Urban Circulators?

A: When selecting projects to be awarded funding, FTA will give priority to projects that can begin construction within eighteen months of being awarded the Section 5309 discretionary grant.

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Q: Can eligible applicants partner with private entities to receive funds under this program for a public-private partnership?

A: Yes, eligible applicants can partner with private entities to receive a Section 5309 discretionary grant.

FTA encourages projects which leverage public and private investments. FTA will assess the project's involvement of non-Federal entities and the use of non-Federal funds, including the scope of involvement and share of total funding. FTA will give priority to projects that receive financial commitments from, or otherwise involve, State and local governments, other public entities, or private or nonprofit entities, including projects that engage parties that are not traditionally involved in transportation projects, such as nonprofit community groups or the private owners of real property abutting the project. FTA will also assess the amount of private debt and equity to be invested in the project or the amount of co-investment from State, local or other non-profit sources.

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Q: To what extent should applications include a plan for operating and maintaining the project?

A: Applicants should include a plan for operating and maintaining the project to demonstrate their ability to carry out the proposed project successfully. Applicants must have basic technical, legal, and financial capacity as a precondition of grant award as evidenced by the viability and completeness of the project's financing package, including evidence of stable and reliable financial commitments and contingency reserves, as appropriate, and evidence of the grant recipient's ability to manage grants.

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Q: Can operating and maintenance costs be funded with the Urban Circulator Grants expense?

A: No, operating costs cannot be funded with Section 5309 grants.

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Q: Can urban circulator projects that applied for TIGER funding also apply for funding from the Urban Circulator Program announced in the December 2009 Federal Register Notice?

A: Urban circulator projects that have submitted an application for TIGER funding may also apply for funding under the Urban Circulator Program. As noted here, FTA will provide up to 80% of the net project capital cost; however, the amount of Section 5309 Capital Investment funds can be no greater than $25 million for each urban circulator project. Other Federal funds that are eligible to be expended for transportation capital projects, such as TIGER grants, can be applied to the project.

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Q: Who can apply for these grants?

A: Eligible applicants under this program are public bodies and agencies (transit authorities and other state and local public bodies and agencies thereof) including states, municipalities, other political subdivisions of states; public agencies and instrumentalities of one or more states; and certain public corporations, boards, and commissions established under state law, who are authorized to engage in public transportation.

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Q: When are the applications for the Urban Circulator Program due?

A: Complete proposals for the Urban Circulator Program may be submitted electronically through the GRANTS.GOV website or by e-mail electronically at UrbanCirculators@dot.gov by February 8, 2009.  

Submission by one of the electronic methods above is required. Mail and fax submissions will not be accepted except for supplemental information that cannot be sent electronically. The total application may not exceed 25 pages.

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Q: Where should I submit the application?

A: The proposals must be submitted electronically through the GRANTS.GOV website or via e-mail at UrbanCirculator@dot.gov. If you intend to apply electronically through GRANTS.GOV you should initiate the process of registering on the GRANTS.GOV site immediately to ensure completion of registration before the deadline for submission. Those who apply via e-mail at UrbanCirculator@dot.gov should receive a confirmation e-mail within 2 business days.

Supplemental Information: Applicants should submit 3 copies of any supplemental information that cannot be submitted electronically to the appropriate FTA regional office. Supplemental information submitted in hardcopy must be postmarked or delivered by alternate delivery services by February 8, 2010.

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Q: Is there a standard form to apply for Urban Circulator discretionary grants?

A: There is not an application form to apply for Urban Circulator discretionary grants.  Section IV B of the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for Urban Circulators includes a description of all the information that should be submitted with an application. 

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Q: Where can I find the Notice of Funding availability?

A: The announcement is available on the FTA website at: http://www.fta.dot.gov/.

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Q: Who should I contact if I have additional questions?

A: You can contact Elizabeth Day, (202) 366#5159, e-mail: Elizabeth.Day@ dot.gov in the FTA Office of Planning and Environment, Office of Project Planning. A TDD is available at 1#800#877#8339 (TDD/ FIRS) for general program information.

For proposal-specific information and issues, contact your FTA Regional Administrator.

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Q: When will the Urban Circulator Grants be announced?

A: Selected projects will be announced in early 2010. FTA will publish the list of all selected projects and funding levels in the Federal Register.

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Q: If you apply for Urban Circulator funds through the email box is there a file size limitation?

A: Yes, the Department of Transportation#s email system will only accommodate emails with attachments that are 10 mega bytes or less in size. This should be sufficient for submitting your 25 page application. Whenever possible, FTA encourages applicants to provide weblinks to supporting documentation rather than emailing that information.

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Q: To whom at FTA should letters of support be addressed?

A: Letters of support for a project from other public and private entities should be addressed to the project sponsor and not FTA.

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Q: Has the deadline for submittal of urban circulator applications been changed?

A: Yes. The grants.gov website will be unavailable on February 8th, so the deadline for submission of applications to the Urban Circulator program is now February 10, 2010. This change in submission deadline will be announced in the Federal Register on February 4th.

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