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New Starts/Small Starts Shift to Focus on Livability

Posted on February 9, 2010 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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Urban circulator funding

In addition to changes made directly to the New Starts/Small Starts selection process, one other change that may impact the way funds are doled out is the administration's announcement in December of the availability of $130 million for urban circulator projects, such as streetcars, to support communities, expand business opportunities and improve quality of life, while also creating jobs.

The money represents the first batch of funding by the Obama administration for its Livability Initiative, a joint venture of the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.

A maximum amount of $25 million per project will be made available from approximately $130 million in unallocated discretionary New Starts/Small Starts Program funds. Eligible projects include streetcars and other urban circulator systems. Priority will be given to projects that connect destinations and foster the redevelopment of communities into walkable, mixed use, high-density environments.

The FTA plans to announce grants early in 2010.

"I'd say the urban circulator program lets them fund projects that are exempt from New Starts/Small Starts," says Boothe. "What that tells me then is they are still concerned existing criteria may make it difficult for streetcars to move forward, since they want folks to go through this exempt category of projects."

Boothe adds that it will be interesting, then, to see which projects will be funded through the urban circulator and TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) programs, and how the projects funded will eventually impact the competition for New Starts/Small Starts funds.

'Too early to tell'

PB's Emerson says that the changes create new opportunities, and that's exciting. He added that the New Starts/Small Starts program is constantly in flux, with each administration tweaking it to emphasize what is most important to them.

"All the changes can be a challenge for those who want to use the program," he says. "Unless one follows the program day in and day out, the ever-changing laws, rules, policies, technical guidance and precedents can be a bit daunting. We'll have to wait and see what happens with the upcoming rulemaking and reauthorization legislation. It's too early to tell how all this will play out."

Meanwhile, Boothe feels that the changes are a positive step at righting the nation's public transportation outlook.

"It's all to the positive," he says. "We're moving progressively in the direction where, hopefully, we're less focused on putting projects in railroad right-of-way or freeway medians and more focused on putting projects where people live and work."

In addition to that, Boothe says that it is a positive that this administration is looking to make the right investment to shape land use and economic development and is less focused on putting it there because of accrued travel time savings and user benefits.

As a result, more focus will be placed on putting stations where people live to let them access transit, rather than giving more travel time benefits to people driving and parking at transit stations instead of busing, walking or biking to transit, which is what the last administration did, explains Boothe.

"We're now more focused on people walking and biking to transit and less focused on putting park-and-ride lots and multi-storied parking garages at the end of lines to jack up cost-effectiveness numbers," Boothe adds. "Those sorts of changes are subtle, but they do lead you to a different outcome in terms of alignment and technology choices."

Measure the benefits

There are a few things down the road that may help clarify exactly where the Obama administration plans on taking the New Starts/Small Starts program.

In the short term, the FTA plans on releasing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will seek to implement some of 2005's technical corrections to SAFETEA-LU, as well as finding ways to properly measure all the benefits.

"Back in the day, the Bush administration sought to use the regulation to do things like implement Very Small Starts as a matter of regulation, sought to fund toll lanes and congestion pricing as a permanent part of the regulation, and that is why Congress blocked the rule," explains Boothe. "So, this administration is likely to make changes."

Another important thing to watch for possibly this spring is guidance for project sponsors submitting information for the next budget cycle in Fiscal Year 2012, which will again clarify exactly where the feds are moving toward in the New Starts/Small Starts program.

At this point, all signs are pointing toward the continued importance of livable communities, and providing greater choices for transportation users through the integration of transportation, housing and commercial development decisions.

In February, President Obama's $79 billion U.S. DOT budget proposal included $527 million in funding for livable communities by establishing an Office of Livable Communities, creating a program to improve local and state project planning and development capabilities, and funding programs that expand transit access for low-income persons.

"I'm looking forward to future changes that will streamline the process," says Emerson. "With an upcoming rulemaking and reauthorization, it's going to be a busy year for New Starts."

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