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Monday, October 11, 2010

Public Transit New Starts Program: Issues and Options for Congress

William J. Mallett
Specialist in Transportation Policy

The New Starts program provides federal funds to public transit agencies on a largely competitive basis for the construction of new fixed-guideway transit systems and the expansion of existing fixed-guideway systems. New Starts has funded the development of bus rapid transit (BRT) and ferries, as these are eligible under the definition of fixed-guideway, but the vast majority of funding has gone to transit rail systems. Partly as a result of federal support, rail transit routemileage in the United States almost doubled between 1985 and 2008, and rail transit passenger trips and passenger miles grew by 66% and 73%, respectively.

The federal transit program, of which New Starts is a part, is authorized by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA) (P.L. 109-59). Since SAFETEA expired on September 30, 2009, the program has operated under a series of authorization extensions. The program underwent several significant changes in SAFETEA, and a long-term reauthorization of the surface transportation program provides a major opportunity for Congress to make more changes.

Four of the most important issues that might arise in the reauthorization debate are:

  • The amount of funding authorized for New Starts projects. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), for instance, recommends increasing the program from an average of about $1.5 billion per year, as authorized by SAFETEA, to an average of $3.5 billion per year. Other policy analysts advocate shrinking federal government support for transit, particularly expensive new rail systems. Another option is to redirect New Starts funding to rehabilitating existing transit rail systems. 
  • The types of projects favored within the New Starts program. Some advocate a continuation of building major commuter, heavy (subway), and light rail transit systems and extensions, while others favor more emphasis on cheaper, but slower, streetcar projects, and still others favor bus and bus rapid transit (BRT). 
  • The New Starts approval process. Several proposals are pending to simplify the approval process or to change the way projects are rated. 
  • Encouragement of more private sector participation in New Starts projects. Formation of public-private partnerships (PPPs) might increase investment in rail transit, but attracting private money may require simplification of the approval process.

Date of Report: October 5, 2010
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: R41442
Price: $29.95

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