On January 9, 2013, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced changes to the New Starts and Small Starts programs.  These reforms streamline the administrative review process for applicants to both programs and apply broader evaluation criteria to proposed projects. 

More specifically, these changes expand the program’s environmental criteria to include measures of human health, energy use, and safety, along with the traditional air quality criteria.  They also include affordable housing in the consideration of economic development factors.  Further, these reforms change the methodology for measuring a proposal’s cost-effectiveness.  The FTA no longer requires applicants to compare the proposed project’s travel time savings to a hypothetical alternative project, but will now focus the review on a comparison of a project’s costs to the number of passengers served. 

On the administrative side, the changes allow pre-qualified projects to forego detailed analyses of benefits, and the FTA will also develop simpler approaches for estimating benefits.  These reforms are expected to save some $500,000 annually in administrative costs.

CMAP’s Policy Updates blog covered the proposed new rulemaking last January.  At the time, CMAP expressed concern that the proposals did not address several issues raised in GO TO 2040, which called on the federal government to expand the New Starts program’s eligibility to include reinvestment in existing infrastructure and to level the playing field concerning the use of funds for Phase I engineering of transit and highway projects.  Since that time, the recently enacted federal transportation reauthorization bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), did address some of these concerns.  A previous Policy Update describes the changes MAP-21 made to the New Starts program, namely its expanded eligibility to support “core capacity improvement projects.”  However, MAP-21 did not address the issues of parity in funding requirements between highway and transit projects.

The discretionary New Starts and Small Starts programs are the largest federal funding source for transit projects.  They provide funds for the construction of new fixed-guideway systems and the extension of existing fixed-guideway systems, including some $2 billion in FY 2012.  Coupled with state and local funding sources, the New Starts program is a critical component of transit capital investments across the country. 

In our region, the New Starts program could play a role in funding GO TO 2040 priorities, such as the CTA Red Line South Extension, which would extend the Red Line from its current terminus at 95th Street for 5.5 miles to 130th Street.  This project would increase access to jobs, streamline bus-to-rail connections, and promote economic development in a highly distressed neighborhood.  The CTA Red Line South Extension is one of five new major capital projects in GO TO 2040.  Through its Local Technical Assistance (LTA) program, CMAP collaborated with the Developing Communities Project and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) on a livability report in support of the extension.  A new webpage, www.cmap.illinois.gov/red-line, features the livability report, a brochure, summarizing the report, an engaging video, and a map gallery, all of which highlight the importance of the proposed extension and the qualitative and quantitative livability impacts of this major transportation investment. The livability report supplements the CTA's pursuit of federal New Starts funding and serves as an educational resource for the Greater Roseland community, as well as local, state, and federal partners.