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October 26, 2009

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MORE FROM THE 2009 APTA ANNUAL MEETING

Working to Make the New Starts Process Easier to Navigate
BY JAY HAMBURG, Special to Passenger Transport

Simplifying the federal approval process for transit New Starts and Small Starts may never be easy, but several speakers in Orlando on Oct. 7 offered suggestions for smoothing the procedure—and shared stories with each other about navigating the complexities of the programs while expressing hope for more flexibility in the future.

At the session, titled “New Directions in Advancing New and Small Starts,” moderator David Vozzolo, vice president of HDR ENGINEERING INC., raised a question: can transportation leaders explain to frustrated voters why a rail project the voters supported seems to hit several stop-and-start points because of complicated regulations? “I don’t even try,” said Toru Hamayasu, chief of the Transportation Planning Division for the City and County of Honolulu DOT.

According to Hamayasu, voters who approve public money for public transportation projects would rather see progress on the ground, which reassures them that improvements are moving forward, than an explanation on the finer points of federal approval. He noted that transportation leaders have to work continuously with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to make sure no unexpected complications crop up in the multi-step approval process.

Hamayasu said his group often asks for many clarifications from FTA to make sure they don’t hit any unseen obstacles, adding: “We’re always nervous.” He explained that the Honolulu Rail Transit Project took a long time to get underway and is slated for completion in 2019.

Transportation leaders also must be realistic in their expectations and keep election timetables in mind, said RoseMary Covington, assistant general manager of planning and transit system development for the Sacramento Regional Transit District (RT).

“The voters expected something to have happened by now,” Covington said of a Sacramento-area transit project. To reassure them that progress is continuing, the agency plans to open a new segment by the next local election cycle.

Sacramento’s “Green Line to the River District” project was funded by local money to start it moving quickly. What that means, however, is that RT can’t be guaranteed that those local millions will qualify as a required match to obtain future federal dollars, said Covington.  So when the transit system applies for federal support for other parts of the larger project, it will need a local match.  She called for additional clarification and leniency on the issue so local transit authorities don’t hesitate to gather local dollars to start the building process.

Richard Simonetta, chief executive officer of Valley Metro Rail in Phoenix, said the Small Starts program is easier and smoother to negotiate than the New Starts program, but it also has limitations: for example, a relatively small rail project planned for the Mesa, AZ, area just barely makes it in under the $250 million Small Starts cap.

It is hard to build a wide-ranging, overall transit system in that fashion, he said, but he believes FTA is becoming more open to finding ways to further refine its funding procedure.

Several other panelists expressed similar hopes. Karen Waterman, transit development manager for Hampton Roads Transit in Hampton, VA, emphasized that the current stop-and-start method that can go along with the approval process can erode both public support and political will for a project.

Laurie Hussey, principal with Cambridge Systematics, added that local transit agencies may have trouble keeping up with the ongoing modifications to the federal process, even though these changes are intended to ease frustrations.

Vozzolo summed up the situation that occurs when a federal program tries to establish consistent, national requirements while dealing with local projects that have unique challenges.

“That’s kind of a conflict when trying to individualize projects and advance them quickly,” he said. “But I really do sense that they [FTA] are very open to fresh, new approaches.”

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