Finance Infrastructure

A year into the Trump Presidency, federal transit support limps along

Minneapolis Southwest Corridor

» Despite efforts by the administration to eliminate support for new transit projects, they continue to be funded by Congress—and transit agencies are continuing to act as if they’ll see aid far into the future.

Last March, the Trump White House released its budget blueprint, a document designed to articulate the administration’s orientation toward the executive agencies. The blueprint took a radical stance toward the federal government’s involvement in transit: It proposed a wholesale elimination of the capital grant programs, which fund a portion of costs for rail and bus guideway projects around the country. It suggested doing away with the TIGER discretionary grant program, which is frequently used to fund small-scale bus rapid transit and streetcar routes, as well as transit stations.

The budget also offered no remedy for the upcoming depletion of revenues from the federal gas tax, which has not been increased since the early 1990s, thereby wildly decreasing its revenues over time.

The proposed cuts could have seriously undermined efforts by the nation’s cities to expand their transit networks. Transit agencies in places from Charlotte to San Diego, among many others, rely on Washington’s support to cover 30 to 60 percent of the capital costs of their major transit projects (through the New Starts program) and major line renovations (through the Core Capacity program). Los Angeles, for example, is funding 47.7 percent of its Regional Connector light rail subway with federal New Starts grants; 48.3 percent of the costs of Fort Worth’s TEX Rail project are borne by Washington.

Smaller cities have used the Small Starts program to fund 30 to 80 percent of their streetcar and bus rapid transit lines. A full list of projects currently on the list for future federal funding—but lacking a guarantee of Washington’s support—is below. This includes projects such as Albuquerque’s BRT, which has already been built on the assumption that the federal government would contribute funding. Yet it hasn’t yet.

A year into the administration, transit projects continue to be built around the country, and dozens more are planned. As I detail in this post, Congress has largely ignored the White House’s efforts to cut funding for transit projects. Moreover, transit agencies are acting as if grants will continue far into the future; they’re continuing to submit their projects for federal review.

But the threat remains that the administration will find ways to seriously undermine transit programs in the U.S. Indeed, Trump has yet to even submit a nominee to head the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA’s capital investment report suggested that “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” despite the government’s continued support for road projects, whose use is overwhelmingly local.

This stance has not yet affected many projects directly, but it does suggest that the government won’t go out of its way to make them happen. Last month the administration announced that it would pull out of an Obama-era deal to aid the funding of a new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey that would carry both NJ Transit commuter and Amtrak intercity trains. A deputy administrator at the FTA dismissed the tunnel as “a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders.”

Congress ignores the president

The administration’s deep antipathy for transit projects has been largely dismissed as irrelevant by the Congress which, of course, ultimately determines how the federal government spends its money.

Last May, the Congress allocated funding for a full bevy of investments. Projects such as Minneapolis’ Southwest Corridor and Seattle’s Lynnwood Link light rail projects, recommended for no funding by the president, were allocated the first of what are likely to be years’ worth of grants to support. That said, those projects’ full-funding grant agreements, which guarantee multi-year support by the federal government, have yet to be signed by the FTA.

Other lines, such as Indianapolis’ Red Line bus rapid transit, were given large Small Starts grants despite the administration’s effort to halt that program altogether.

Even the TIGER program—which is discretionary in that it requires the Department of Transportation’s Secretary to make decisions about which projects to support—is moving ahead, despite considerable delays. After the Congress agreed to fund the program mid-year, the government provided a notice of funding availability in September, for which awards are anticipated soon.

Transit agencies plot a path forward with federal funds

If the intention of the administration’s proposal to eliminate federal support for transit was to encourage local and state governments to simply fund projects themselves, there is little evidence that they’ve taken that tack so far.

I asked representatives of transit agencies throughout the country to describe how they planned to move forward given the administration’s hostility to new funding. None suggested that they were changing their plans whatsoever.

Corinne Holliday of Phoenix’s Valley Metro, for example, noted that the agency and “its city partners remain confident that Tempe Streetcar and the South Central [light rail] Extension will be fully (federally) funded and we continue to move forward as such.” Representatives of Twin Cities Metro continue to plan on full federal support for the Southwest Corridor and Blue Line Extension light rail projects. Bryan Luellan of Indianapolis’ IndyGo noted that the agency had in fall 2017 submitted its Purple Line bus rapid transit line to federal review, and that it is planning to submit its Blue Line project soon.

Agency confidence—or at least their unwillingness to change plans—has meant that they have continued pressing ahead. Jose Ubaldo of Metro Los Angeles noted that the Trump budget and other executive actions “have not materially affected” the financing schedule of the third phase of the Purple Line subway extension, which has not yet received federal support. “Metro continues to work with FTA in the grant application process that would result in a grant agreement in 2018,” he said, “under the presumption the New Starts program is funded through a Congressional appropriation.”

Indeed, agencies seem to be assuming that the Congress will continue to be by their side. “The contingency plan in the event of no New Starts [funding] is to redouble our work with House and Senate appropriators,” Ubaldo said. Norm Mah of the City of Seattle noted that “despite the Trump administration’s lack of support for the FTA Capital Investment Grants program… Congress continues to demonstrate bipartisan support which is shown by a letter signed by [Washington] Senator Patty Murray and other congressional members.”

Not actually getting the funding, however, will make transit agencies incapable of moving forward. Kimberly Reason of Seattle’s Sound Transit—which is planning a massive light rail program—made the dynamics of the situation clear. “The elimination of federal funding assumed for Sound Transit projects poses a great risk to delivering these projects by their planned completion dates,” she said.

Steven Taubenkibel, an FTA spokesperson, emphasized that the agency was continuing to accept projects. “We continue to advance projects through the process, consistent with the statute,” he said. But he cautioned that those projects’ future funding is in no way ensured. “Project sponsors that do not yet have construction grant agreements acknowledge they are undertaking additional work at their own risk.”

What will 2018 bring?

Pressed by agencies, mayors, and other local officials, Congress may continue to fund transit projects with individual allocations. The FTA continues to maintain a list of projects it is willing to support—whether or not the administration is actually suggesting funding them—and Congress seems likely to continue to use that list to pick out which projects to fund.

If the agency continues to accept applications for project funding and Congress continues its allocations, transit agencies may be in the clear. It is worth remembering that the Bush Administration repeatedly proposed gutting support for transit investments, too, but those proposals went unheeded by a Congress representing jurisdictions all over the country with transit plans.

Taubenkibel also underlined that the White House is—at least if you believe what its officials say—interested in supporting transit projects. “The Administration’s upcoming Infrastructure Initiative,” he noted, “will provide a comprehensive proposal to accelerate project delivery, spur private sector innovation and investment, and ensure that the Government effectively invests Federal infrastructure funding.”

It is true that government officials have repeatedly suggested they’d like to move forward with an infrastructure bill, which has sometimes been described as a one-trillion-dollar investment. In theory, new infrastructure funding could support new transit projects.

What we know about that proposal, however, suggests that it is unlikely to be supportive of the transit projects most cities want. The administration’s rhetoric about the plan suggests that it would emphasize selling or leasing assets to private entities (though the president himself is apparently not confident that public-private partnerships work in the first place), and fund projects that can “support themselves” through user fees, which means that it won’t do much for projects other than toll highways in dense urban areas.

Meanwhile, the Congress just passed a massive tax cut that will decrease federal revenues. It is hard to believe they’ll invest in an infrastructure program if it requires increasing taxes in an election year.

Image at top: West 21st Street Station, on Minneapolis’ Proposed Southwest Light Rail Corridor, from Metro Transit.

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