The Federal Transit Administration on Wednesday published a policy guidance document about the evaluation criteria and rating process for transit projects seeking funding under the New Starts and Small Starts grant programs.

The FTA provides grants under the programs for transit including rapid rail, light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit and ferries. Grants can be used in conjunction with bond financing. New Starts projects have greater costs and seek more federal grant money than Small Starts projects.

Projects that have a full funding grant agreement under the programs include the High Capacity Transit Corridor Project in Honolulu, the Central Mesa Light Rail Transit Extension in Arizona and the first phase of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project in Northern Virginia. The Honolulu and Dulles projects also have, or are planning for bond financing as well. Projects in the development stage for the grants include the East Bay Bus Rapid Transit in California and the extension of the Southeast light rail transit line in the Denver area.

The policy guidance details how statutory criteria for projects are evaluated and rated. It accompanies a rule that went into effect in April and takes into account the changes made to the grant programs in that document.

The rule made four key changes to the New and Small Starts programs. Under the rule, the FTA adopted a more straightforward approach for measuring a project's cost-effectiveness, expanded the range of environmental benefits that are examined, added new economic development factors to be evaluated and rated and streamlined the project evaluation process.

The FTA evaluates and rates New Starts and Small Starts projects based on justification for the projects and local financial commitment. Each criterion is rated on as scale from "low" to "high."

Criteria for project justification include mobility improvements, environmental benefits, congestion relief, economic development effects, land use and cost effectiveness.

Criteria for local financial commitment include the availability of: reasonable contingency amounts; stable and dependable capital and operating funding sources; and local resources to recapitalize, maintain, and operate the overall existing and proposed public transportation system without requiring a reduction in existing services.

The rule and the policy guidance cover the evaluation process and rating criteria for the grant programs defined in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, which was singed into law in July 2012. But the process for shaping these documents began before MAP-21 became law, and subsequent guidance and rulemaking will have to address new items in MAP-21 that have not yet been the subject of a rulemaking process.

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