Implementation of TEA-21

The majority of the changes to the new starts program noted above will be implemented through the rulemaking process. Under 49 USC §5309(e)(5), as added by TEA-21, FTA is required to publish "regulations on the manner in which [FTA] will evaluate and rate" proposed new starts projects. This rule will define the summary project ratings of "recommended," "highly recommended," and "not recommended," as required by TEA-21, implement the revisions to the multiple measures for project justification, describe how FTA will use the summary ratings to approve entry into preliminary engineering and final design, and discuss the relationship of the project evaluation process to the planning and project development process.

Due to the fact that the Final Rule has not been published, the project evaluations and funding recommendations for FY 2001 are based on FTA’s existing process, as published in the Federal Register on December 19, 1996 and amended on November 12, 1997 (61 FR 67093-106 & 62 FR 60756-58), modified slightly to account for the increased emphasis on land use by TEA-21 and the prohibition against placing a dollar value on mobility improvements.

The New Starts Rulemaking Process

On April 7, 1999, FTA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in response to the TEA-21 requirement that the Department issue regulations on the manner in which new starts projects proposed for funding under §5309 will be evaluated and rated (64 FR 17062-71). The docket was open for public comment through July 6, 1999, though late-filed comments were accepted through July 19. In general, the NPRM retained the basic "multiple-measure method" for evaluating the statutory criteria for project justification and local financial commitment, described how each factor would be combined into overall ratings for justification and finance, and how those ratings would in turn determine the statutory overall project rating of "highly recommended," "recommended," or " not recommended." It also described how these ratings would be used to approve entry into preliminary engineering and final design, as required under TEA-21.

Comments were received from a total of 41 individuals and organizations (not counting duplicates). FTA also held three public outreach workshops during the comment period to solicit comment on the proposed rule. All comments in the docket are matters of public record, and are available for inspection at the United States Department of Transportation Central Dockets Office. The docket is also available online through DOT’s Docket Management System (DMS), at http://regulations.gov

While comments were submitted on virtually every aspect of the proposed rule, most of them centered around four "key" issues: the measure for cost effectiveness, the measure for mobility improvements, the continued use of the TSM (Transportation System Management) alternative for evaluation purposes, and the overall project ratings introduced by TEA-21 ("highly recommended," "recommended," and "not recommended").

The most commented-upon issue by far was the measure for evaluating cost effectiveness. The NPRM solicited comment on the retention of FTA’s historical "cost per new rider" (or more properly, incremental cost per incremental rider) measure to indicate cost effectiveness, and asked if there were other measurements. The 23 comments received in response to this question were unanimous in their assertion that the measure should "roll up" additional benefits beyond incremental cost per new rider. The consensus was that the focus on new riders ignores benefits to other riders, which in turn may bias the measure against older cities with "mature" transit systems where the focus of a new start may be on improving service, not attracting new riders.

The proposed rule also retained the existing measure for evaluating the mobility improvements of a proposed new start. The current measure is based on 1) projected travel time savings and 2) the number of low-income households within ½-mile of the proposed stations. Of the 15 comments that specifically addressed the low-income mobility measure, ten recommended that it address destinations as well as households, arguing that a system that is located near low-income households is of little use to residents unless it can also provide access to employment centers and other activity centers.

The issue of the Transportation Systems Management (TSM) alternative generated nearly as much comment as the cost effectiveness measure. The NPRM proposed to continue the existing requirement that all proposed new starts be evaluated against both a no-build and TSM alternative. This requirement generated 13 comments, all of them opposed to retaining the TSM. Most of the commenters felt that it was unnecessarily burdensome to maintain a TSM alternative, noting that certain incremental system improvements will occur whether the new start is constructed or not (i.e., it is no longer appropriate to view the no-build alternative as a "do nothing" scenario). The most common suggestion was that if FTA retains a requirement for a TSM alternative, it should be dropped after alternatives analysis has resulted in the selection of a locally-preferred alternative.

The fourth issue that generated significant comment concerned the overall project ratings. Section 3009(e) of TEA-21 requires FTA to assign summary ratings of "highly recommended," "recommended," or "not recommended" to each proposed new starts project, and to use these ratings to approve advancement through the project development stages and for FFGAs. FTA has used these ratings as an indicator of project merit, with annual funding recommendations based on these ratings as well as project readiness. Thus, a project with a rating of "recommended" or higher would be eligible for a funding recommendation if it has been sufficiently developed for a Federal commitment. In comments to the NPRM, the industry expressed confusion regarding the use of these ratings, as well as concerns that a rating of "not recommended" would be misinterpreted as an indication that the proposed project had no merit, and would erode both local support and funding.

FTA is in the process of evaluating these and other comments to the proposed rule, and it must be stressed that the comment period is closed. FTA is working to issue the rule in spring 2000, in time for the 2001 edition of this report (which will contain funding recommendations for FY 2002).