The fate of Maryland’s Purple Line light rail system looks gloomy after federal judge orders more reviews of the $5.6 billion P3 project.
Transportation cuts in Trump’s 2018 budget proposal threaten Maryland’s $5.6 billion Purple Line rail P3 project.

DALLAS – Financing for more than a dozen large-scale transit projects funded in part with federal transit grants is jeopardized by President Donald Trump's plan to eliminate the $2.3 billion per year New Starts program.

Trump's 64-page budget blueprint for fiscal 2018 would halt grants from the program except for those projects already covered by a completed and signed full funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration.

The president's plan would cut off funding next year for 16 projects that are awaiting a funding agreement, according to the FTA.

At least 50 proposed transit projects are in less-advanced stages of the grant pipeline, including several that have been cleared by the FTA for final engineering work in preparation for a funding agreement.

"Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects," according to the budget plan.

Projects seeking a New Starts grant must ask for at least $100 million from the program or have total capital costs of at least $300 million.

The budget proposal released Thursday would also eliminate the Transportation Department's $500 million per year Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) competitive grant program.

Congress must renew the grants, a holdover from the 2009 stimulus program, each year.

A full fiscal 2018 budget proposal will be unveiled in May, but details on the president's $1 trillion infrastructure proposal won't be available until later, said Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"What we've effectively done is try to move money out of existing, more inefficient programs, and hold that money for what we expect to be more efficient infrastructure programs later on," Mulvaney said.

The president's infrastructure plan will be released in late summer or fall after Congress deals with other matters first, he told reporters on Thursday.

"We have to do Obamacare repeal and replace first, then tax reform second," Mulvaney said. "That leaves infrastructure probably third, which may come after the August recess in Congress."

Projects without a completed full funding agreement with FTA include Maryland's $5.6 billion Purple Line light rail system that is being financed as a public-private partnership, the $24 billion Gateway Project to replace the Hudson Tunnel between New Jersey and New York City, a subway extension in Los Angeles, and a light rail line in North Carolina between Durham and Chapel Hill.

Maryland was four days away from the formal signing of a $900 million FTA grant for the Purple Line in August but the official ceremony was canceled when a federal judge halted work on the project to consider challenges in an environmental lawsuit. The FTA grant would have paid for about half of the project's $2 billion construction costs. The project is still on hold.

"We won't know if there's an impact to the Purple Line until a final budget is passed by Congress and the appropriations process is complete," said Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Seven transit projects in Washington state are at risk from the president's budget, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

"I will use every tool I have to fight for TIGER, transit grants, and other competitive programs so the federal government continues to be a good partner when it comes to investing in our nation's roads, bridges, and public transportation," Murray said.

In February, the FTA said it would defer a $647 million federal Core Capacity grant sought by northern California commuter rail operator Caltrain to electrify its train system. FTA director Matthew Welbes said the delay of the grant announced in the last days of the Obama administration would give officials "additional time to complete review of this significant commitment of federal resources."

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