New Study Analyzes Federal Transit Administration New Starts Program

Research Highlights New Starts Program as One of the Only Performance-Oriented Discretionary Funding Programs

Contact: 

Ashley Clark, Press Secretary
(202) 637-1456
aclark@bipartisanpolicy.org

Friday, February 5, 2010

Washington, D.C. – A new research paper released last week highlights features of the New Starts program that are relevant for broader efforts to make transportation policy more performance-oriented. The paper, “New Starts: Lessons Learned from Discretionary Federal Transportation Funding Programs,” was prepared for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) by Donald Emerson and Jeffrey Ensor of Parsons Brinckerhoff. The paper analyzes the New Starts program to identify lessons learned and highlights components of the program that might be relevant for new competitive programs.

Administered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the New Starts program is one of the few discretionary, metropolitan-focused transportation grant programs that attempts to use performance criteria. NTPP has recommended new and larger competitive programs with broader investment goals through which federal transportation resources can be allocated based on results and outcomes. In its recently released report, “Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy,” NTPP recommends moving towards a transportation system that is structured around the achievement of specific national goals: economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety. The NTPP report proposes that 25% of all federal transportation funding be allocated through mode-neutral competitive programs.

While the long application and approval process of the New Starts program and some of its criteria have been criticized, this program has several features worth emulating in a competitive grant program, including a comprehensive evaluation process using multiple criteria, shared decision-making between the executive and legislative branches, and incentives for a large local funding match. NTPP suggests that these features are essential for the design of an effective, competitive, and performance-based program. There are challenges with the New Starts program that are also delineated in this report. For example, the New Starts process has become a very cumbersome and large burden for potential grant recipients, perhaps discouraging worthy proposals. Also, the evaluation criteria have become too narrow, thus discouraging potential innovations. NTPP suggests that any new competitive grant program should be designed to avoid the problems New Starts has experienced.

Other findings include:

  • Federal decisions about New Starts funding go through an effective shared decision-making process between the legislative and executive branches of government. The U.S. DOT receives and rates local project proposals, makes specific recommendations based on analytic criteria, and Congress retains final approval over funding decisions. This process is an excellent model for future competitive grant programs.
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  • New Starts features a prescribed planning and project development process, combined with a rigorous and comprehensive federal review and rating of proposed projects, through which FTA seeks to minimize risk and evaluate projects in a fair and transparent manner.
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  • In the early years of the New Starts program, federal evaluators compared projects in relative terms, separating them into groups according to their worthiness for federal investment. Over time, the evaluation has changed to emphasize an absolute score of each project’s costs and benefits. Rather than a competition, successful projects are those that can survive a protracted process and satisfy FTA funding criteria.
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  • The New Starts program has broad investment objectives, but relatively narrow eligibility. It only funds fixed guideway mass transit projects, plus a few corridor-based bus improvement programs. A mode-neutral competitive program, as recommended by NTPP, would have broader eligibility.

For additional details, please download the full paper here.

A project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, NTPP was launched with the goal of bringing fresh dialogue and approaches to transportation policy. NTPP is co-chaired by former Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA), former Congressmen Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Martin Sabo (D-MN), and former Mayor of Detroit Dennis Archer. In June, NTPP released its blueprint for surface transportation reform. It is the product of a broad, bipartisan coalition of transportation experts, and business and civic leaders. To learn more about NTPP, please visit www.bipartisanpolicy.org.

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