One of MAP-21’s many mixed blessings was the New Starts Core Capacity program. It expanded eligibility for New Starts grants — normally reserved as capital assistance for new transit lines — to existing corridors. To qualify, the system just had to show that the improvements would expand the capacity of the line by at least 10 percent.
The double-edged sword is this: The expanded mission didn’t come with any more money. In fact, the Federal Transit Administration saw its funding for New Starts/Small Starts frozen for several years, and then faced a 7 percent cut with the sequester for 2014. Luckily, the budget deal appears to have saved them from that, and though details are still forthcoming, it may mean a more modest 2 percent cut. Less horrific than was feared, perhaps, but still less money for more eligible projects.
That’s led some people to fear that the smaller, newer systems New Starts has traditionally targeted could lose out to legacy systems in major transit markets like New York and Boston. Those concerns came out last week during a Highway and Transit Subcommittee hearing in Congress, focusing on the new program.
“With the expanded eligibilities, one could see a potential situation in which a handful of expensive projects in large urban areas could monopolize the New Starts funding over several years,” said subcommittee chair Tom Petri (R-WI) in his opening remarks. “This could come at the expense of funding opportunities for new public transportation systems in the rest of the country.”
The first New Starts Core Capacity grant to an existing line was put in the project pipeline last month — for Chicago’s red and purple lines, a $4 billion project.