FTA's New Starts Program Will Still Evaluate Alternatives
The Wall Street Journal’s April 30 opinion piece, “The New Earmarkers: Cost Analysis for Transit Projects Gives Way to ‘Social Equity’”, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Federal Transit Administration evaluates proposed transit projects under its New Starts grant program. The piece implies that proposed rules issued earlier this year would “do away with … comparative cost analysis” and would instead give more weight in the evaluation process to “social equity and environmental considerations.” This assertion is wrong on both counts.
In order to even be considered for New Starts funding, a project sponsor must have completed not one but two analyses in which various transportation alternatives are compared. One analysis is required by the New Starts program itself, under which local governments applying for funding must complete an “alternatives analysis,” defined in the proposed rule as: “a corridor-level analysis that is an assessment of a wide range of public transportation alternatives designed to address a transportation problem in a corridor or subarea.” The other comparison of alternatives is a requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which transportation projects must comply with. Completion of both of these analyses and selection of a “locally-preferred alternative” – not a federally-dictated alternative - is required before a project is eligible to receive New Starts funding. This is true today, and would be true under the proposed regulations as well.
The evaluation criteria for New Starts projects are established in law. The current governing statute, SAFETEA-LU, was passed by Congress in 2005, and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The project justification criteria that SAFETEA-LU requires are: (1) mobility improvements, (2) environmental benefits, (3) cost effectiveness, (4) operating efficiencies, (5) economic development effects, and (6) public transportation supportive land use policies and future patterns. Under the proposed rule, each of these six statutory criteria would be given equal weight in the evaluation process.
Overall, the proposed rule represents a significant improvement over the current process and can be expected to speed up project approvals – a goal with widespread, bipartisan support. The Center for Transit-Oriented Development submitted comments on the proposed rule, which can be found here.