Public Transportation:

Opportunities Exist to Improve the Communication and Transparency of Changes Made to the New Starts Program

GAO-05-674: Published: Jun 28, 2005. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 2005.

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The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) and subsequent legislation authorized about $13.5 billion in guaranteed funding for the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) New Starts program, which is used to select fixed guideway transit projects, such as rail and trolley projects, and to award full funding grant agreements (FFGA). GAO assessed the New Starts process for the fiscal year 2006 cycle. GAO identified (1) the number of projects that were evaluated, rated, and proposed for new FFGAs and the proposed funding commitments in the administration's budget request; (2) changes FTA has made to the New Starts application, evaluation, rating, and oversight processes since the fiscal year 2001 evaluation cycle and how these changes have been communicated to project sponsors; and (3) how FTA developed the measures used to evaluate and rate projects from the criteria outlined in TEA-21 and how those measures are used in the rating process.

For the fiscal year 2006 evaluation cycle, FTA evaluated and rated 27 projects and identified 4 projects that were expected to be ready for new FFGAs before the end of fiscal year 2006 and an additional 6 projects that may be eligible for other funding outside of FFGAs. The administration's fiscal year 2006 budget proposal requests $1.5 billion for the New Starts program, a request similar to that of the past 2 years. FTA has made 16 changes to the New Starts application, evaluation, rating, and oversight processes since the fiscal year 2001 cycle that were primarily intended to make the process more rigorous and systematic. Seven of the 16 changes underwent rulemaking, including providing formal notice to the transit industry and soliciting comment, while 9 changes did not. FTA officials said that these nine changes are consistent with the existing regulations governing the New Starts process or relate to the project development oversight process rather than the evaluation and rating process and, therefore, in their opinion, do not need to undergo formal rulemaking. By not consistently soliciting public opinion, however, FTA is missing an opportunity to obtain stakeholder buy-in, increase the transparency of the New Starts process, and lessen potential difficulties project sponsors face in implementing the changes. Many of the measures FTA uses to evaluate and rate New Starts projects have evolved over time, with industry input, through formal rulemaking and informal efforts, such as workshops and reports. Although both TEA-21 and FTA's New Starts program regulations emphasize the importance of using a multiple-measure approach for evaluating projects, FTA assigns weight to all three financial criteria but only two of the five project justification criteria in developing a project's rating. FTA officials said that they do not use the other three project justification criteria--which are specified in TEA-21--because the measures fail to distinguish among projects. Project sponsors we interviewed offered suggestions for improving all of the project justification measures, and FTA has efforts underway to improve some of the measures.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that the New Starts regulations reflect FTA's current evaluation and rating process, and to ensure that FTA's New Starts evaluation process and policies are objective, transparent, and follow the intent of federal statute, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FTA, to publish future changes to the New Starts program in the Federal Register and subject future changes to the New Starts program to the rulemaking process or, at a minimum, a 30-day informal review and comment period, as appropriate. As part of this process, the agency should develop criteria for determining which changes should be subject to the rulemaking process, as outlined in federal statute, or to an informal review and comment period. At a minimum, these criteria could include changes that impose new reporting requirements or new analysis on project sponsors, changes to the principles used to recommend projects for funding, and changes to the weights assigned to the criteria used to evaluate and rate projects. The criteria should be communicated to Congress and to project sponsors and others in the transit community.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005 (SAFETEA-LU), which was signed into law on August 10, 2005, requires the Secretary of Transportation to publish policy guidance regarding the new fixed guideway capital project review and evaluation process and criteria each time significant changes are made by the Secretary to the process and criteria, but not less frequently than once every 2 years. In addition, the Secretary must invite public comment on the changes and publish a response to the comments. On August 30, 2005, the Department of Transportation reported that it concurred with GAO's recommendation and that the Federal Transit Administration will identify changes to the New Starts program that will be subject to either rulemaking or informal review and comment as required by SAFETEA-LU.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the New Starts regulations reflect FTA's current evaluation and rating process, and to ensure that FTA's New Starts evaluation process and policies are objective, transparent, and follow the intent of federal statute, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FTA, to improve the measures for evaluating New Starts projects so that all five project justification criteria can be used in determining a project's overall rating, or provide a crosswalk in the agency's New Starts regulations showing clear linkages between the criteria outlined in statute and the criteria and measures used in the rating process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its January 2006 guidance, FTA outlined its initial thinking on how to implement SAFETEA-LU changes to the New Starts program, including different evaluation criteria. FTA sought public input on a number of its proposals, including proposed measures for the different evaluation criteria. According to FTA officials, FTA will use the public input to develop a notice for proposed rule making for the New Starts program later this year that will clarify how all evaluation criteria will be used in reviewing proposed New Starts projects.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the New Starts regulations reflect FTA's current evaluation and rating process, and to ensure that FTA's New Starts evaluation process and policies are objective, transparent, and follow the intent of federal statute, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FTA, to ensure that the agency's regulations governing the New Starts evaluation and rating process reflect FTA's current weighting practices for the criteria when the regulations are revised.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its January 2006 guidance, FTA outlined its initial thinking on how to implement SAFETEA-LU changes to the New Starts program. FTA sought public input on a number of its proposals, including the proposed weighting practices for evaluation criteria. According to FTA officials, FTA will use the public input to develop a notice for proposed rule making for the New Starts program later this year.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the New Starts regulations reflect FTA's current evaluation and rating process, and to ensure that FTA's New Starts evaluation process and policies are objective, transparent, and follow the intent of federal statute, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FTA, to consolidate information and guidance related to the New Starts program in one location on the agency's Web site and regularly review this information to ensure it is up to date and easy to access.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 30, 2005, the Department of Transportation (DOT) reported that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently added a quick link to New Starts material on the homepage of its public web site in response to GAO's recommendation. Through this link, project sponsors can access the most current guidance, sample documents, reporting instructions, and other materials related to the New Starts program. DOT also reported that FTA will continue to strive to improve the user-friendliness and completeness of its web site.

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