Consensus emerging on streamlining federal project reviews

Posted on June 16, 2011 by Cliff Henke

Congressional leaders are attracted to expanded private sector participation concepts for transit and high-speed rail projects such as the Denver Eagle P3 commuter rail project (rendering shown) in FTA's Penta-P program.
Congressional leaders are attracted to expanded private sector participation concepts for transit and high-speed rail projects such as the Denver Eagle P3 commuter rail project (rendering shown) in FTA's Penta-P program.
Whether next fiscal year's levels of federal capital public transport projects are closer to President Obama's, the relevant Senate committees' proposals or that proposed in the House-passed budget resolution, there seems to be an emerging consensus that the length of time and number of steps in the federal project evaluation process need to be reduced. This may be the only bright spot in an otherwise darkening prospect for obtaining a long-term reauthorization bill, which is now more than two years late.

Fail to keep pace

According to FTA and industry data, the process for obtaining a Full Funding Grant Agreement for a New Start project can consume as many as a dozen years, and that's before groundbreaking. Adding in feasibility and strategy analyses to support, or at least test, the local project commitment on the early end and the construction, testing and commissioning, a rail project can take two decades or more prior to service opening. Not only is this costly, it is almost guaranteed to fail to keep pace with the rapid growth of the past half century, which is expected to continue well into the current one.

To address this situation, the Obama Administration is proposing to reduce the number of FTA approvals that a project must receive from the current four to two. Under this proposal, a project would not have to enter an Alternatives Analysis process with a separate environmental review. Instead, after receiving a locally preferred alternative status, a project would seek permission to enter the New Starts program; at that point FTA's evaluation would begin. So far, both the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leadership under Chairman John Mica as well as the Senate Banking Committee leadership agree with these ideas.

In addition to eliminating the FTA's time-consuming and costly alternative analysis process, FTA as well as congressional leaders want to eliminate or severely compress FTA approvals to enter the Preliminary Engineering and Final Design stages, and instead, require only that FTA monitor the project through these stages until approval for a Full Funding Grant Agreement, or a project construction agreement in Small Starts.

Expand eligibility

The administration also proposes to expand eligibility for Small Starts to $100 million in federal program funding from $75 million, currently, and raise the eligible project size from $250 million to 10 percent of the total. Congressional leaders are also attracted to expanded private sector participation concepts for transit and high-speed rail projects advocated by administration officials and others that would be facilitated by more flexible and accelerated project reviews. The Denver Eagle P3 commuter rail project in FTA's Penta-P program is an example.

While the Senate, Administration and House leaders continue their three-party dance out of step with one another, regarding the level of funding, a streamlined federal project review process may be the last refuge of transit policy bipartisanship.



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