On June 9, 1998, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), Public Law 105-178, which reauthorizes Federal surface transportation programs through 2003, was enacted. For new starts, TEA-21 leaves prior Federal law and policy largely intact, including the basic project justification criteria and the multiple-measure method of project evaluation. However, a number of significant changes were introduced to the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts Program.
Among the provisions of TEA-21 affecting FTA’s new starts program was language revising §5309(e) to codify many of the principles of FTA's New Starts Policy, which was published in the Federal Register on December 19, 1996 (61 FR 67093) and amended on November 12, 1997 (62 FR 60756). Aspects of the new starts policy which are now written as law, but which remain the same as past policy and practice, include the following:
- Proposed new starts projects must be based on the results of alternatives analysis and preliminary engineering.
- FTA must approve entry into preliminary engineering.
- FTA must find that proposed projects are "justified," based on a "comprehensive review" of several criteria (cost-effectiveness, operating efficiencies, mobility improvements, and environmental benefits) which remain unchanged; a variety of additional considerations that must be taken into account (including congestion relief, air quality, energy consumption, the mobility of transportation dependent persons, economic development, and transit supportive land use policies and patterns) are also unchanged.
- FTA must find that projects are supported by an acceptable degree of local financial commitment; the basis for making this finding (stable and dependable financing sources to construct, maintain, and operate the project) is not changed, and the considerations which are to be taken into account are also largely unchanged.
- Projects are to be funded using FFGAs, which specify the project to be constructed and the maximum amount of Federal funds which will be made available for the project.
- The criteria do not apply to projects which require less than $25.00 million in §5309 funds, or which are completely funded with flexible Title 23 (highway program) funds.
- FTA's recommendations to Congress regarding projects must be presented in an Annual Report produced in concert with the President's annual budget.
In addition to these principles, however, TEA-21 introduced a number of important changes to the way FTA manages and implements the new starts program. Among the most significant changes are the following:
- Integration of the Major Investment Study (MIS) concepts into the joint planning and environmental regulations issued by FTA and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) (23 CFR Part 450 and 23 CFR Part 771), elimination of the MIS as a separate requirement, and streamlining of the environmental process.
- A requirement for FTA to establish overall project ratings of "highly recommended," "recommended," or "not recommended."
- A requirement for FTA approval before a project can advance from preliminary engineering to final design (in addition to the existing requirement for approval to initiate preliminary engineering).
- A requirement for FTA to publish regulations on the manner in which proposed projects will be evaluated and rated.
Other important changes include:
- The addition of several statutory "considerations" to the project evaluation process, including the cost of sprawl, infrastructure cost savings due to compact land use, population density and current transit ridership in a corridor, and the technical capacity of the grantee to undertake the project.
- A provision expressly prohibiting FTA from considering the dollar value of mobility improvements.
- The elimination of the exemptions from the project evaluation process for proposed projects that require less than one-third of the project funding from 49 USC §5309 or are part of a State Improvement Plan for air quality. The exemption remains for projects requiring less than $25 million in 49 USC §5309 funding. (Projects for which FFGAs are already in place are not subject to re-evaluation.)
- For evaluating local financial commitment, the consideration of local funding beyond the required non-Federal share has been incorporated into statute.
- A second annual report to Congress, in addition to the existing "report on funding levels and allocations of funds," is now required. This new "Supplemental Report on New Starts," due each August, will include updated ratings for projects that have completed the alternatives analysis and preliminary engineering stages of development since the date of the last Annual Report on New Starts.
- A provision limiting the amount of funds made available every year for proposed projects in alternatives analysis or preliminary engineering to 8 percent of total new starts funding for that year.
- A requirement for an annual review of FTA’s project evaluation and rating process and procedures by the General Accounting Office.