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. Section 5309(e)(1) specifies that discretionary grants or loans for New Starts may be approved only if a proposed project is based on the results of Alternatives Analysis and Preliminary Engineering, and certain project justification and financial criteria have been met.
Federal financial support for the planning process may be derived from a number of sources, including the Section 5303 Metropolitan Planning Program, the Section 5313 State National Planning and Research Program, and planning programs administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). FTA Urbanized Area Formula funds under Section 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 Section 5309 New Starts funds for initial planning activities. Moreover, Section 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 eight percent of funds appropriated.
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 Section 5309 New Starts funding. This Alternatives Analysis provides information on the benefits, costs, and impacts of alternative strategies, leading to the selection of a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) 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 challenges.
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 each alternative are identified and studied, and information in response to the FTA New Starts project evaluation criteria is 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 long range transportation plan.
Once Alternatives Analysis is complete, 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 long-range transportation plan, the inclusion of the preliminary engineering activities in the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), and information demonstrating the technical capability of project sponsors to undertake Preliminary Engineering. The request must also address the project justification and local financial commitment criteria outlined below (see Page 4). (This information is normally developed as part of an Alternatives Analysis.) FTA then evaluates the proposed project as required by Section 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, the local project sponsor refines the design of the project to a level of detail necessary to complete the requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For New Starts, this usually includes the completion of a Final Environmental Impact Statement. 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 project development process. 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. A comprehensive Preliminary Engineering effort will also address the New Starts project evaluation criteria. Information on project justification and the degree of local financial commitment is updated and reported, as appropriate. As part of Preliminary Engineering activities, localities are encouraged to consider policies and actions designed to enhance the benefits of the project, as well as its financial feasibility.
Preliminary Engineering is typically financed with Section 5303 and Section 5307 funds, local revenues, and flexible funds under the Surface Transportation Program (STP) and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. A project may not advance out of Preliminary Engineering until FTA has issued a Record of Decision (ROD) or Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), as required by NEPA.
Once Preliminary Engineering is completed, a project sponsor who wants to advance a project must request FTA approval to enter the Final Design phase of development. The request must provide information that demonstrates the technical capability and financial capacity of the local project sponsor to undertake the necessary engineering. Like 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 actions 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 Section 5309 New Starts funding.