» In spite of previous statements in favor of a major infrastructure bill and support for transit, Donald Trump’s budget proposal would decimate the federal government’s commitment to aiding cities build new transit lines.
Any hope that Donald Trump would prioritize investment in transit infrastructure died on Wednesday night.
His administration’s budget blueprint, a rough outline of what changes he’d like to see in the federal government’s discretionary spending programs, recommends a 13 percent decline in the budget of the Department of Transportation. Much of that $2.4 billion annual reduction would come from slashing investment in transit.
The blueprint would kill new grants by the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant program. It would eliminate the popular TIGER grant program, which has supported bus rapid transit, streetcar, station, and pedestrian facilities around the country over the past few years. It would also terminate federal support for long-distance Amtrak lines, cutting service to much of the South and West.
At least based on the initial information provided, the budget would keep “formula” funds for transit in place. These support transit agency purchases of new buses and trains, and can be used for state of good repair, but not expansions.
The limitations on the Capital Investment Grant program will be extremely painful for cities and transit agencies that have pinned their hopes on investing in new rail and bus lines. This program supports what are known as New Starts, Small Starts, and Core Capacity grants, all of which provide matching dollars to fund projects such as light rail lines in Minneapolis and Seattle, subways in Los Angeles and New York, renovations of existing elevated lines in Chicago, and bus rapid transit lines in Fresno and Oakland.
Though projects that currently have what is known as a Full Funding Grant Agreement from the federal government would retain support, all others that are planned but haven’t yet signed that agreement would be cut off from federal support according to the proposal.
This change could lead to the cancellation of transit projects all around the country, from Caltrain’s electrification program, to Durham, North Carolina’s light rail line, to New York’s Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, to Indianapolis’ Red Line bus rapid transit. A full list of the projects that would be immediately affected is below.
Ironically, as a candidate, Donald Trump said “we have to spend money on mass transit… we have to spend a lot of money.” He repeatedly noted his admiration for transit in China and seemed to suggest interest in building subways and high-speed rail. Yet his budget blueprint promises nothing of the sort.
Some hope that the budget blueprint will be followed up by his proposed $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which Trump has claimed would fund transportation improvements. Yet not only is that proposal unlikely to happen, even if passed the way it is structured it would likely do very little for transit agencies, since it would require projects to be profitable, a condition very little transit can meet.
The net effect of the budget—going beyond just the Department of Transportation—is a massive slashing of support for cities, even as support for suburbs is maintained. While new transit projects would be eliminated from federal funding, the highway formula funds, which support new highway construction, would be retained. The Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects grant program, which primarily goes to expanding federal roads, would be continued at $900 million a year.
Meanwhile, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s programs supporting low-income neighborhoods and families, including Community Development Block Grants, HOME, and Choice Neighborhoods, would be eliminated entirely. Killing these programs would immediately create holes in city budgets, increase homelessness, and reduce their ability to provide social services. At the same time, programs benefiting wealthy homeowners, such as the mortgage interest tax deduction, would be preserved. The Administration, of course, is also planning to propose massively regressive tax reductions.
That sucking sound you hear is the Trump Administration throwing the economic weight of the government toward wealthy suburbs and individuals and away from cities and the poor.* This is social engineering by the feds—just for the benefit of people who don’t need help.
Of course, the president’s blueprint is just a concept. Further details will be released in the coming weeks and, more importantly, Congress will ultimately make any final decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t. President Obama, notably, proposed budgets virtually every year that would increase support for transit investment. Yet these budgets were largely ignored by a Congress that had set its own priorities.
Though controlled by the Republican Party, there are reasons to believe that the budget the national legislature eventually passes won’t be as austerity-driven toward transit investment as this proposal is. It’s hard to envision legislators—especially senators—being willing to tell their constituents that their long-planned transit projects will simply get no federal support. Will Arizona’s Republican representatives really be okay with cutting federal support for projects in Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Tempe? Will Florida’s GOP representatives support elimination of support for projects in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Orlando, and St. Petersburg? I’m skeptical.
Nevertheless, the threat is real. The U.S. House came close to defunding federal support transit entirely half a decade ago, and it may attempt to do so again. With little hope in the immediate term for an infrastructure bill of any sort, there are only dark skies ahead for our cities and their transit agencies.
* Rural areas, it should be noted, wouldn’t be helped much by this budget either.
Image at top: Caltrain’s proposed electrification program.