In recent years, most of the new starts activity shifted to the rapid-growth states west of the Mississippi. This year, however, as evidenced by the FTA’s announcement in February on New Starts, the activity has a slightly more easterly tilt.
Partly due to some long in the works, mega-projects finally coming forward, and partly due to investments approved to cope with growth in the East’s own Sunbelt cities, the half of the country normally thought of as "rail country" was heard from this year again.
Also, for the first time, New Starts funding will include money for four "small starts." The Small Starts category was created under SAFETEA-LU for projects that cost less than $250 million to build and require no more than $75 million in federal funding. It was created so that these projects would not have to compete for federal funding with larger projects and to help streamline the process for projects with inherently lower budget risk. As will be discussed later, however, the rules implementing this new program have not lived up to those hopes.
A record $1.4 billion in FY 2008 funding will be spent on new starts this year, including new full funding grant agreements (FFGAs) approved for two major projects — the $3.4 billion Second Avenue Subway in New York (discussed in greater detail below) and Seattle’s $1.6 billion University Link LRT extension. In addition, "construction grant agreements" (the counterpart to the FFGA for small starts) have or will soon be issued for bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in Springfield, Ore.; Los Angeles; Seattle; and Kansas City, Mo.
The administration’s budget also proposed slightly more than $72 million for six other projects that are either currently in final design "but have additional work to do to address cost and scope uncertainties," as explained by the New Starts annual report, or would be in final design by now. These include Hartford, Conn.’s New Britain Busway BRT, the Northstar commuter rail project in Minneapolis, Norfolk, Va.’s LRT, the Dulles extension of Washington’s metro system and two BRT projects in Houston (the Southeast and North corridors).
Finally, 11 other projects that have already received FFGAs will also continue to be funded in this year’s budget process.
East heads pipeline
Although two projects with pending FFGAs at the beginning of the year are for projects out west, Denver’s $574 million West Corridor and Portland, Ore.’s $557.4 million South Corridor light rail extensions (both in final design), most of the other projects in the approval process, including the largest, are located in the East. Here are highlights of the latest new starts developments in this part of the country:
New York: As expected, the Big Apple received its FFGA and broke ground in April on the Second Avenue Subway, a 2.3-mile project on Manhattan’s east side. Expecting to open for revenue service in 2013, the project received a high rating from the FTA (the bar for which has been set higher thanks to tightened user-benefit assessment changes). Running from Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan, the project is designed to relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue Line, the busiest transit line in America. Costing an estimated $4.7 billion, this segment approved for the FFGA is the first phase of what is expected to be 8.5 total additional miles in the nation’s largest heavy rail system, eventually running from East Harlem to Hanover Square in the financial district.
The project is in addition to the massive $7 billion East Side Access Project, extending the Long Island Rail Road using the 63rd Street Tunnel and new tunnels under Park Avenue to Grand Central Station. Doing so will alleviate overcrowding in Penn Station and enable Amtrak and other commuter services to expand there. The project is slated to open in 2011.
Northern Virginia: The Dulles Corridor has been considered for a variety of fixed-guideway investments ever since the airport was opened in the 1960s. Modes studied have ranged from light rail to BRT to, most recently, a reconsideration of a heavy rail extension of the Washington Metrorail system. The first segment of this line is 11.6 miles to Reston, Va., which is in preliminary engineering. The project envisions the Metrorail’s Orange Line running from the existing East Falls Church station through the large Tysons Corner employment and retail center to Wiehle Avenue in Reston. The project, which has been controversial in the FTA’s approval processes and received a congressional exemption, was estimated last year to cost $2.1 billion.
Hartford, Conn.: The New Britain-Hartford Busway is the only bus-based mode in the current East Coast round-up. Now in final design, the 9.4-mile exclusive BRT system will run between downtown New Britain and downtown Hartford’s Union Station. The line would run parallel to Interstate 84, the primary transportation link between New Britain, West Hartford and downtown Hartford, the region’s most congested highway. The project is expected to cost $459 million.
Minneapolis: The Northstar Corridor Rail proceeded into final design this year. A 40.5-mile commuter rail line, Northstar is the first phase of an eventual 82-mile line from Minneapolis to Rice, Minn., and is designed to serve one of the fastest-growing corridors in the region. Also part of the first phase is a four-block extension of the Hiawatha LRT line to interconnect with Northstar. The project is estimated to cost $307 million, with revenue service is projected for late 2009.
Norfolk, Va.: Now in final design, Hampton Roads Transit’s 7.4-mile starter LRT line will cost $232 million after years of delay from changes in funding as well as federal regulations. If on track the rest of the way, the light rail line could open in late 2009 or early 2010.
Chicago: The $530 million Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project is upgrading a system over a century old that serves the fastest-growing ridership in the city’s rapid transit network. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is reconstructing platforms and stations on the Ravenswood El to accommodate eight-car trains with accessibility for the mobility impaired in all stations as well as upgraded signals, track and platforms throughout the 9.1 miles from Chicago’s North Side to downtown. To achieve this, three-track operation began in key network sections on the Brown as well as two other CTA lines. The total project cost is $529.91 million.
Northern New Jersey: Two LRT projects opened for revenue service last year in the region, the result of FFGAs granted earlier in the New Starts program. The first was the last of the Hudson-Bergen LRT’s second phase, which involved two extensions, the northern one comprising six new stations along 5.1 miles from Hoboken to North Bergen and a one-mile, one-station extension on the southern end in Bayonne. The project cost $1.21 billion. The second debut was the opening of a modernized, $207.7 million Newark Light Rail system.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Transit, the agency responsible for both projects, approved $5.7 million for final design of a $156 million commuter rail line using FRA-compliant diesel multiple unit (DMU) technology. The project will include up to nine stations along the existing New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad right-of-way between Hackensack and Hawthorne, N.J. Construction is expected to start in 2008 and be completed in 2010.
Pittsburgh: The Northshore LRT Connector Project will extend by 1.5 miles the existing light rail network from downtown Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle area to the city’s North Shore area. The project is expected to cost $393 million and is slated for revenue opening in June 2011.
Pipeline flow slows down
These are just the projects in the eastern half of the country that are about to begin construction; there are many other projects in earlier stages of planning and engineering. Yet you would not know it from the number of projects in the FTA’s project pipeline.
That list has dropped dramatically in the past two years, a major concern in the transit industry. For example, the number of those approved for entry into preliminary engineering has dropped to just 15; only four years ago there were 42, and 25 were listed as recently as a year ago. One project (Orange County, Calif.’s Center Line LRT) has even dropped from the final design list. While the New Starts report attributes these changes to local decisions, such as what happened in Orange County, many project sponsors tell another story, contending that the FTA’s efforts to "raise the bar" of evaluation has driven many projects to use local funds or remain unduly long in alternatives analysis.
Addressing this concern, FTA Administrator James Simpson said this past March, "There is considerable overlap between the FTA’s own perception of the program, the Deloitte [study] recommendations and APTA’s suggestions.
"Certainly, the Deloitte study confirmed a lot of things that we already know," Simpson added, citing the highly complex evaluation and submittal process involving many stakeholders, often with "inherently conflicting opinions" among them. He and others have pointed out the rapid growth of the program relative to the staff levels at his agency, resulting in longer approval times.
"While I am very proud of what FTA has accomplished with the program, there is always room for improvement," Simpson said. He suggests clearer definition of requirements, more consistent application of policies, relief from unnecessary reporting and smoother internal FTA processing.
Other reforms are more regulatory and thus take much longer to implement. The FTA has proposed the allowance of so-called "modal constants" for some of the immeasurable attributes of fixed-guideway transit, such as reliability, ride quality and branding, in calculations of project cost effectiveness. Broader definitions of project benefits are also being examined — one of which was already called for by the last reauthorization legislation but has yet to be adopted to the industry’s satisfaction: economic development.
Clarification of program
Although the recently proposed regulation for the New Starts and Small Starts program did not really encompass a process that put economic development on the same level as travel times savings, ridership and other easier-to-measure project benefits, Simpson has offered the following promise: "Over the next few months, expect to see clearer information on project milestone approvals, risk assessments, the New Starts baseline alternative and other aspects of the New Starts program. Key objectives of this guidance will be a) to be clear; b) to be complete; and c) to simplify the process where possible."
The huge projects in the East, especially those in New York, currently make the slowdown less noticeable. Yet as these projects get funded and built, many in the industry worry that this approval slowdown will leave money unobligated, especially early in the next decade. Whether the reforms Simpson offers will accelerate the projects could have implications for how much of this money might be left on the table — in reach of future federal budget cutters looking for easy targets.