Inside MAP-21: New Starts Transit Grants
by Jason Jordan, APA Director of Policy and Government Affairs, July 13, 2012
The American Planning Association (APA) is taking a closer look at the new federal surface transportation bill, MAP-21, with daily posts detailing the changes and new provisions of a key program or section. The bill provides a 27-month, $118 billion authorization and has been signed into law by President Obama. The new provisions of the law will take effect October 1, 2012.
The New Starts program, also known as the Fixed Guideway Capital Investment Grant program, had its funding cut slightly by about $50 million to $1.907 billion for each of the fiscal years 2013 and 2014.
New Starts is the primary federal program providing funding for major new transit projects. The program is left intact overall but includes eligibility modifications and reforms designed to streamline the approval process.
In addition to funding new fixed guideway capital projects and small starts, the bill creates a new program category for Core Capacity Improvement Projects. These projects are defined as those that provide substantial investment while increasing the capacity of a corridor by 10 percent or more. This should increase flexibility for transit agencies to use funding to maintain their existing capital assets if they can generate at least a 10 percent increase in capacity as a result of the investment. (Funding is not to be used simply to maintain a state of good repair.)
As requested by the House, the bill modifies the definition of Bus Rapid Transit projects to broaden the use of the program. BRT projects will now be classified and funded as either Corridor-Based or Fixed Guideway. Corridor-Based BRT projects lack a separate right-of-way but include defined features that emulate rail service and are considered a small start. Fixed Guideway BRT projects include all the same features as the former category, but the majority of the project operates in a separate right-of-way dedicated to public transportation during peak periods.
A provision in the bill allows three Fixed Guideway BRT projects to receive at least 80 percent federal funding share each fiscal year. These provisions provide a significant opportunity for communities seeking to invest in BRT, which under SAFETEA-LU, was mostly funding through bus discretionary appropriations.
Lawmakers in both chambers put an emphasis on efforts to streamline project approval for all programs. New Starts evaluation criteria are simplified and duplicative project development steps are removed in an effort to enable FTA to review proposals more quickly. The bill specifically includes the Senate’s provision to expedite review for fixed guideway projects with a New Starts funding share of less than $100 million or less than 50 percent of the total project costs. The technical capacity review process would also be expedited for transit agencies that have already completed a similar project that achieved or surpassed budget, cost and ridership projections.
The bill also establishes a Pilot Program for Expedited Project Delivery, which is essentially a category for demonstration projects that require less than 50 percent federal funding share. Only three projects will be eligible, one of which must request more than $100 million and one less than $100 million in federal financial assistance.