DALLAS – President Trump’s plan to kill a $2.3 billion per year federal transit grant program is a slap in the face for communities that have approved local taxes to help fund public transportation projects, transit officials said Monday.
Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget would limit funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts capital improvement grants to only the 12 projects that currently have signed full funding agreements.
Voters in the Seattle area approved a 25-year plan in November that will raise property and sales taxes to fund a doubling of the regional light rail system but the massive project cannot be built without the transit grants that Trump is trying to eliminate, said Peter Rogoff, chief executive at Sound Transit and a former undersecretary for policy at the Transportation Department under President Obama.
“The voters gave us $54 billion of their own money based on completing these projects with significant federal grants,” Rogoff said during a conference call with reporters. “The president’s own principles for infrastructure call for rewarding projects with significant local funding, so this cutoff would be very disheartening and mystifying.”
The region has agreed to fund 50% of one rail extension project and 25% of another, Rogoff said.
"Continued strong federal partnership will be instrumental to completing voter-approved projects,” he said.
The budget proposal would cut funding for the grant program to $1 billion in fiscal 2018 -- only enough to continue signed commitments -- from the $2.3 billion per year authorized in 2015’s Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
“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.
Voter-approved funding for an extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system to San Jose is also threatened by the looming grant cutoff, said Nuria Fernandez, general manager of Valley Transportation Authority.
“The proposed cutoff landed a terrible blow to this project,” Fernandez said. “It undermines our local funding efforts as well as the previous federal funding for it.”
The proposed cuts go directly against the president’s own calls for more infrastructure spending, said Richard White, acting president of the American Public Transportation Association.
“The Trump administration has made it clear that infrastructure investment is important for our country’s economic prosperity. Yet, this budget proposal to eliminate critical public transportation infrastructure projects is inconsistent with addressing America’s critical transportation needs and helping America’s economy prosper,” White said.
The $10 billion project to replace the 106-year-old rail connections between New York City and New Jersey would be dead in the water without significant federal grants, said John Porcari, interim executive director of the Gateway Development Corp. that is overseeing the effort.
“This is the most urgent infrastructure project in the nation, and it is at significant risk from the potential loss of federal transit grants,” Porcari said.
“When we are asking for a grant, the feds tell us they look for stable and reliable local funding streams for the project,” Porcari said. “We look to the federal government for that some sort of stability and reliability.”
Gateway cannot be funded solely by the local partners, he said.
“There is no plan B,” Porcari said. “This is an essential part of federalism. Without the participation of the federal government, the project will not move forward. ”
Dallas Area Rapid Transit would lose a significant part of the funding it was relying on to build a new subway line in downtown Dallas and provide additional service to the fast growing northern suburbs if the New Starts grants are eliminated, said DART president Gary Thomas.
“We need to know if the federal government is still willing to work with us,” Thomas said. “Sustainable, predictable and substantial federal funding is essential.”