Public Transportation:

Better Data Needed to Assess Length of New Starts Process, and Options Exist to Expedite Project Development

GAO-09-784: Published: Aug 6, 2009. Publicly Released: Aug 6, 2009.

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The New Starts program is an important source of new capital investment in mass transportation. To be eligible for federal funding, a project must advance through the different project development phases of the New Starts program, including alternatives analysis, preliminary engineering, and final design. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) evaluates projects as a condition for advancement into each project development phase of the program. FTA has acted recently to streamline the process. This report discusses the (1) time it has generally taken for projects to move through the New Starts process and what Congress and FTA have done to expedite the process and (2) options that exist to expedite the process. In response to a legislative mandate, GAO reviewed statutes, FTA guidance and regulations, and project data. GAO also interviewed Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, projects sponsors, and industry stakeholders.

Insufficient data are available to describe the time it has taken for all projects to move through the New Starts process. Nevertheless, 9 of 40 projects that have received full funding grant agreements since 1997, and had complete data available, had milestone dates that ranged from about 4 to 14 years to complete the project development phases. However, the data from these 9 projects are not generalizeable to the 40 New Starts projects. FTA has not historically retained all milestone data for every project, such as the dates that project sponsors apply to enter preliminary engineering and FTA's subsequent approval. Although not required by its records retention policy, FTA has retained milestone data from some projects longer than 2 years. However, GAO was unable to obtain complete and reliable project milestone data from FTA. FTA officials acknowledged that, while not historically perfect, the agency has retained sufficient milestone data to help manage the New Starts program. Nevertheless, recognizing the importance of having complete milestone data, FTA has taken several steps in recent years to more consistently collect and retain such data. In addition, GAO found that project sponsors do not consistently retain milestone data for projects that have completed the New Starts process. Congress and FTA have taken action to expedite projects through the New Starts process. For example, legislative action created the Public-Private Partnership Pilot Program (Penta-P) to study the benefits of using public-private partnerships for certain new fixed-guideway capital projects, such as accelerating project delivery. In addition, FTA has implemented administrative changes to expedite the New Starts process. For example, FTA has developed and offered training workshops for project sponsors and has introduced project delivery tools. These tools include checklists for project sponsors to improve their understanding of the requirements of each phase of the New Starts process. Project sponsors and industry stakeholders GAO interviewed identified options to help expedite project development within the New Starts program. These options include tailoring the New Starts evaluation process to risks posed by the projects, using letters of intent more frequently, and applying policy and guidance changes only to future projects. Each option has advantages and disadvantages to consider. In addition, FTA must also strike the appropriate balance between expediting project delivery and maintaining the accountability of the program. For example, by signaling early federal support of projects, letters of intent could help project sponsors use potentially less costly and time-consuming alternative project delivery methods, such as design-build. However, such early support poses some risk. It is possible that with more frequent use of letters of intent, FTA's commitment authority could be depleted earlier than expected, which could affect the anticipated funding stream for future projects. Furthermore, some options, like combining one or more statutorily required project development phases, would require legislative action.

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 improve the New Starts program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FTA Administrator to continue to improve data collection and retention for statutorily defined milestones and determine if additional data would help to better describe the time it takes for a project to move through the New Starts process. In doing so, FTA should establish mechanisms to ensure the accuracy of the data and routinely analyze the data in order to identify the length of time it takes projects to move through each phase, potential causes for perceived delays, and potential solutions. FTA should make its analysis available to Congress and other interested parties.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As FTA stated in its agency comments to this report, FTA disagreed with GAO's recommendation. And, FTA's position regarding this recommendation has not changed. On April 29, 2011, an FTA official reiterated that FTA continues to disagree with this recommendation. Further, on June 29, 2011 FTA indicated that they have no intention of making the recommended changes. The FTA officials indicated they would like us to close the recommendation even if we indicated not implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the New Starts program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FTA Administrator to continue to analyze the streamlining options identified in this report, along with any additional options, to determine which options, if any, to implement--seeking legislative change if necessary--to expedite the project development within the New Starts program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO reported that the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) had recently taken action to streamline the New Starts project development process. GAO contacted project sponsors, transit consultants and others who identified a number of options to further streamline and expedite this process. Although each of these options could streamline the process, each option has advantages and disadvantages to consider. In addition, FTA must also strike the appropriate balance between expediting project development and maintaining the rigor and accountability of the New Starts program. Therefore, GAO recommended that FTA analyze streamlining options and determine which to implement or seek legislative approval of, as necessary. In response, FTA considered various streamlining options and determined which to implement to streamline New Starts project development process. FTA officials indicated that in September 2009, the agency published policy guidance taking some immediate steps to extend pre-award authority for activities such as utility relocation and procuring real estate and vehicles, so project sponsors could decide to take these steps before final FTA approval, possibly eliminating some delay. In addition, FTA published a Notice of Proposed rulemaking in January 2012; this rulemaking has, as one of its broad goals, streamlining the New Starts and Small Starts project development process. As a result, the length of New Starts Process should serve as less of a deterrent and encourage more communities to turn to transit to solve their transportation challenges.

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