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Monday, February 4, 2013

Public Transportation New Starts Program: Background

William J. Mallett
Specialist in Transportation Policy

The New Starts program is a discretionary funding program for the construction of new fixedguideway public transportation systems and the expansion of existing systems. Eligible projects include transit rail, including subway/elevated rail (heavy rail), light rail, and commuter rail, as well as bus rapid transit (BRT) and ferries. Public transportation, as defined in federal law, does not include transportation by school bus, intercity bus, or intercity passenger rail (Amtrak).

The New Starts program is one element of the federal public transportation program that is administered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) within the Department of Transportation. In July 2012, the New Starts program was reauthorized through FY2014 as part of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21
st Century Act (MAP-21; P.L. 112-141). Funding is authorized at $1.9 billion for FY2013 and FY2014, or about 18% of the overall federal public transportation program budget. Unlike FTA’s other major programs, funding for the New Starts program comes from the general fund of the U.S. Treasury, not the mass transit account of the highway trust fund. Moreover, the New Starts program provides discretionary funding whereas the other major programs provide funding by formula.

The program underwent several significant changes in MAP-21:

  • Funding can now be used for substantial investments in existing fixed guideway lines that increase the capacity of a corridor by at least 10%, termed “core capacity improvement projects.” MAP-21 also authorizes the evaluation and funding of a program of interrelated projects. 
  • MAP-21 retains the definition of Small Starts projects as those costing less than $250 million and seeking $75 million or less in federal funding. But MAP-21 does not specifically reserve funding for Small Starts projects as was the case in prior law. 
  • MAP-21 simplifies the New Starts process by reducing the number of major stages from four to three. The new stages are termed project development, engineering, and construction. 
  • MAP-21 eliminates the alternatives analysis that is separate from the alternatives analysis required by National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). 
  • MAP-21 provides FTA with authority to advance projects more quickly in certain circumstances. 

A recent focus of both Administration and congressional concern has been the rating scheme by which projects are evaluated, particularly the notion of cost effectiveness. Among other things, MAP-21 changes the definition of cost effectiveness from incremental travel time saved to cost per rider. This would likely improve the rating of projects that generally provide shorter trips, such as streetcars.

Date of Report: January 17, 2013
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: R42921
Price: $29.95

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