The Federal Transit Administration’s discretionary New Starts program is the federal government’s primary financial resource for supporting locally planned, implemented, and operated major transit capital investments.
The New Starts program funds new and extensions to existing fixed guideway transit systems in every area of the country. These projects include commuter rail, light rail, heavy rail, bus rapid transit, streetcars, and ferries.
The Federal Transit Administration is preparing rulemaking, per SAFETEA-LU.
SAFETEA-LU authorizes $6.6 billion in total funding for fiscal years 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. This includes funding for more than 330 projects for proposed, pending, and existing Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA). FFGAs are multi-year contractual agreements between the FTA and project sponsors that formally define the project scope, cost and schedule. They also establish the maximum level of federal financial assistance and outline the terms and conditions of federal financial participation.
New Starts projects, like all transportation investments in metropolitan areas, must emerge from a regional, multi-modal transportation planning process. The process is based upon rational decision making that benefits from the information developed during the following three phases of New Starts project development:
Phase I – Alternatives Analysis
Local project sponsors are required to perform an alternatives analysis that evaluates the mode and alignment options for a particular corridor in the community. This analysis informs local officials and community members on the benefits, costs and impacts of transportation options, so that the community can identify a preference. This phase is complete when local and regional decision makers select a locally preferred alternative, and it is adopted by the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) into the region's long-range transportation plan.
Phase II – Preliminary Engineering
During the preliminary engineering (PE) phase of project development for New Starts investments, local project sponsors consider their design options to refine the locally preferred alternative and complete the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. Preliminary engineering hones the estimates of project costs, benefits, and impacts. In addition, during the PE phase of project development, local sponsors finalize management plans, demonstrate their technical capabilities to develop the project, and commit local funding sources.
Phase III – Final Design
Final design is the last phase of project development and includes the preparation of final construction plans, detailed specifications and bid documents.
New Starts projects must undergo evaluation by the FTA throughout the entire project development process. Projects are evaluated according to a variety of criteria. As required by SAFETEA-LU, which amends 49 USC §5309(d)(5)(B), the FTA assigns ratings of “high,” “medium-high,” “medium,” “medium-low,” or “low” throughout the project development process as information concerning costs, benefits, and impacts is refined.
Based on these evaluations, the FTA makes decisions about moving projects forward, from preliminary engineering to final design, to annual funding recommendations to Congress, and to the execution of a FFGA. In the Annual Report on New Starts, FTA applies these evaluations to recommend funding for projects anticipated to be ready for an FFGA before the end of the budget fiscal year, and to recommend funding for other meritorious projects.
49 USC §5309(d) establishes the criteria under which proposed New Starts projects are evaluated. The FTA evaluates the project justification and the local financial commitment according to the following measures:
In addition, SAFETEA-LU adds two criteria - Economic Development and the Reliability of Forecasts.
To assign overall project ratings to each proposed New Starts project, FTA considers the individual ratings for each of the project justification and local financial commitment measures. FTA combines this information into summary “finance” and “project justification” ratings for each prospective New Starts project. Individual measures, summary criteria ratings, and overall project ratings are designated as “high,” “medium-high,” “medium,” “medium-low” or “low.”