The recent first meeting of the Nassau Hub Community Benefits Advisory Board (Janelle Clausen — April 26) reminded me of another milestone. This year represents the 14th anniversary of the ongoing proposed Nassau Hub planning efforts and study. Under several grants worth $10 million, most of these funds from the Federal Transit Administration have been spent on this study with no significant progress to date.
Since 2005, Nassau County has conducted a series of ongoing planning and environmental efforts to support a number of potential transportation improvements, such as Bus Rapid Transit, Light Rail or other options for the Nassau Hub. This might connect Roosevelt Field Mall, Hofstra University, Nassau Community College, Museum Row, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the county seat in Mineola, Garden City, Hempstead and Westbury. The cost for design, construction and implementation could be easily several hundred million dollars, depending upon the transportation mode and route(s) selected. Some have estimated a total cost of $450 million.
The New York State Department of Transportation maintains the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. Each Metropolitan Planning Organization for every urbanized area which is affiliated with NYSDOT maintains a local Transportation Improvement Program. This includes the Nassau-Suffolk Transportation Coordinating Committee. Both the STIP and TIP documents contain a complete inventory of potential transportation improvement projects, respective sponsoring agency and estimated cost. Both the MPO and NYSDOT maintain five-year short range and 20-year-long range lists of potential capital transportation improvement projects by recipient and operating agency. Is this project included on the TIP, STIP and long-range plans for future design, engineering and construction? If so, what year(s)?
One potential source of funding is the Federal Transit Administration’s discretionary competitive New Starts program. This project is not included in the latest FTA March 2019 New Starts Report for upcoming federal fiscal year 2020. After 14 years of planning, the project not being admitted into the federal New Starts process is bad news. The first step to obtain permission to enter the Project Development Phase of the FTA New Starts Program is just the start of a long multi-year process.
The initial approval to enter the “project development” phase is only the first step, and the project still faces myriad hurdles. Completion of this work includes the FTA issuing an environmental finding, along with reaching agreements with the project sponsor, in this case Nassau County, concerning the proposed project budget, scope and milestones. This averages several years.
This is followed by the project being given permission by the FTA to advance to the next stage known as “final engineering.” Progression of final design and engineering from 30 percent to 100 percent averages several more years. This could include review and approval by various village, town, county, state and federal permitting or regulatory agencies along with financial, user, operations and maintenance groups. How long would the Nassau County Interim Financial Review Board take before providing approval?
Successful completion of the New Starts process results in the federal government’s entering into a Full Funding Grant Agreement. This third step can average several more years. The FFGA is the legally binding commitment for providing federal funding. It is also subject to congressional recommendation and presidential approval for inclusion of the project within future annual authorization and appropriation of funding under FTA New Starts budgets to finance the FFGA.
There can be no Full Funding Grant Agreement without documentation that the local recipient’s (Nassau County) share is in place. How would Nassau County come up with $300 million to leverage $150 million in federal dollars assuming a total project cost of $450 million? Would Nassau County contribute $150 million and ask Albany for $150 million resulting in a three-way, 33 percent county/state/federal cost-sharing agreement?
Another potential funding source is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Is this project being considered under the upcoming MTA Five Year 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Plan currently under development? Is it included within the MTA 2014-2034 Twenty Year Capital Needs Assessment document? Nassau County could request the MTA take over advancement of this project. This might include progression of preliminary and final design, construction, operations and maintenance. Perhaps some of the future anticipated 10 percent of congestion pricing revenue ($1.5 billion share) promised to the Long Island Rail Road could be used toward paying for this project?.
Based on the lack of any significant progress to date, Nassau County may be unable to obtain federal New Starts funding for the Nassau Hub Bus Rapid Transit project until 2024. Who knows how many more years it would take before anyone can board the first vehicle in passenger service.
(Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for over $600 million in grants to support Nassau County bus system and billions more for the MTA, NYC Transit, LIRR and Metro North Rail Road along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).