Planning and Project Development Process

New Starts projects, like all transportation investments in metropolitan areas, must emerge from a regional multimodal transportation planning process in order to be eligible for Federal funding. In addition, 49 U.S.C. §5309(e)(1) specifies that discretionary grants or loans for New Starts may only be approved if a proposed project is based on the results of alternatives analysis and preliminary engineering, and that certain project justification and financial criteria have been met.

Federal financial support for the planning process is derived from a number of sources, including the §5303 Metropolitan Planning Program, the §5313 State National Planning and Research Program, and planning programs administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). FTA Urbanized Area Formula funds under §5307 and flexible funds under the Surface Transportation Program (STP) and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Program may also be used to support certain planning activities. Given the significant demands placed on the New Starts program, FTA does not support the use of §5309 New Starts funds for initial planning activities. Moreover, §5309(m)(2) limits the amount of New Starts funding that can be used for purposes other than final design and construction to not more than 8 percent of funds appropriated. In evaluating the local financial commitment to a proposed project, FTA considers the degree to which initial planning activities are conducted without funding from §5309.

Alternatives Analysis

As part of the metropolitan planning process, local project sponsors must perform a corridor-level analysis of mode and alignment alternatives in corridors for which projects may be proposed for §5309 New Starts funding. This alternatives analysis will provide information on the benefits, costs, and impacts of alternative strategies, leading to the selection of a locally preferred alternative to meet the community's mobility needs. Alternatives analysis is regarded as a key planning tool to be undertaken within the multimodal metropolitan and statewide planning processes, supplemented by subsequent project development analyses, for determining appropriate solutions to transportation issues.

The alternatives analysis evaluates several modal and alignment options for addressing mobility needs in a given corridor. It is intended to provide information to local officials on the benefits, costs, and impacts of alternative transportation investments. Potential local funding sources for implementing and operating the investment are to be identified and studied, and information in response to the FTA New Starts project evaluation criteria is to be developed. Involvement of a wide range of stakeholders--including the general public--in the alternatives analysis phase is strongly encouraged. At local discretion, the alternatives analysis may include undertaking a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) or Environmental Assessment (EA). Alternatives analysis is considered complete when a locally preferred alternative (LPA) is selected by local and regional decision-makers and adopted by the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in its financially-constrained metropolitan transportation plan.

Preliminary Engineering

Once the locally preferred alternative is selected and adopted into the MPO’s financially constrained metropolitan transportation plan, the local project sponsor may submit a request to the FTA regional office to initiate the preliminary engineering phase of project development. The request must provide information that demonstrates the readiness of the project to advance into preliminary engineering, including the adoption of the project into the metropolitan transportation plan, the programming of the preliminary engineering study in the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), and information demonstrating the technical capability of project sponsors to undertake the preliminary engineering effort. The request must also address the project justification and local financial commitment criteria outlined below (see Page 5). (This information is normally developed as part of an alternatives analysis.) FTA then evaluates the proposed project as required by §5309(e)(6) and determines whether or not to approve the project for preliminary engineering. FTA approval to initiate preliminary engineering is not a commitment to fund final design or construction.

During the preliminary engineering phase, local project sponsors refine the design of the proposal, taking into consideration all reasonable design alternatives. Preliminary engineering results in estimates of project costs, benefits and impacts in which there is a much higher degree of confidence than earlier in the process. A comprehensive preliminary engineering effort will also address the New Starts evaluation criteria. In addition, requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) must be met (for New Starts, this usually includes the completion of a Final Environmental Impact Statement), project management plans and fleet management plans are finalized, and local funding sources are committed to the project (if they have not already been committed). Information on project justification and the degree of local financial commitment will be updated and reported as appropriate. As part of their preliminary engineering activities, localities are encouraged to consider policies and actions designed to enhance the benefits of the project and its financial feasibility.

Preliminary engineering is typically financed with §5303 and §5307 funds, local revenues, and flexible funds under the Surface Transportation Program (STP) and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program, and is considered complete when FTA has issued a Record of Decision (ROD) or Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), as required by NEPA.

Final Design

Proposed projects that have completed preliminary engineering must request FTA approval to enter the final design phase of development. The request must provide information that demonstrates to FTA the technical capability and financial capacity of the local project sponsor to advance the project into final design. Like the approval to enter into preliminary engineering, this approval is based upon a review and evaluation of the costs, benefits, and impacts under the statutory project evaluation criteria. Final design is the last phase of project development, and includes such items as right-of-way acquisition, utility relocation, and the preparation of final construction plans (including construction management plans), detailed specifications, construction cost estimates, and bid documents. Final design is typically eligible for §5309 New Starts funding.