Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
But President Trump’s budget blueprint also targets transportation programs that serve rural Americans.
Remember all those transit measures that won big at the polls in November? For many left-leaning urban voters, they represented a pinpoint of hope in a sky of GOP gloom. On both sides of the political aisle, some thought that the newly elected president would follow through on his bombast on infrastructure spending, the fabled $1 trillion investment to “build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
But where some heard opportunity, others sensed hot air. President Trump’s proposed federal budget blueprint confirms those anxieties: The Department of Transportation (DOT) is slated for a $2.4 billion cut. Urban transit systems, Amtrak corridors, and aviation networks should prepare for pain.
Transportation wonks were already predicting a whack at the TIGER grant program, which has awarded billions in highly flexible grants to local transportation projects since 2009, including a bus-rapid transit line in Birmingham, bike-and-pedestrian paths in Phoenix, and commuter rail infrastructure improvements in Chicago. It is one of the rare grant programs that’s enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress over the years. The president’s budget eliminates the program, stating it would save the feds $499 million annually.
Next up is a cap on the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program, also known as “New Starts.” The budget proposes “funding to projects with existing full funding grant agreements only.” That means Boston’s Green Line extension and the Portland-Milwaukee light rail project in Oregon would be safe, among others. But some of the most “shovel-ready projects” in the country, to use a Trump team-favored phrase, don’t have a full agreement in place, including Caltrain’s electrification project. Dozens of projects would be in limbo, among them several metros that passed major transit referenda in November, including Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Seattle. The transportation researcher and consultant Yonah Freemark assembled a complete list here:
List of all transit projects in line for federal funds in the next few years, but which would have their funding cut with Trump budget. pic.twitter.com/Hkor98PiUD— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) March 16, 2017
Even with billions in local funds set aside and available, these cities would face serious trouble fulfilling these projects, not to mention their promises of improved mobility, environmental mitigations, and economic development. Those benefits reach well beyond city limits, but the budget document doesn’t see it like that. “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” it states.
That’s strange language, as Freemark noted, for a president who wants to pass a federal infrastructure bill. “If his government believes this, what projects would an infra bill fund?” Freemark tweeted. (Toll roads, perhaps, and maybe more gas and oil pipelines.) Also, which “inner cities” does Trump plan to revitalize if not those in the metros on the cut-list?
The Trump budget blueprint also advances two perennial desires of Republican lawmakers: privatize the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control function and axe funds for Amtrak. The document proposes the complete elimination of support for long-distance, intra-state train services, which would “allow Amtrak to focus on better managing its State-supported and Northeast Corridor train services.” That might be challenge, since one of the most critical projects required to improve NEC service—the highly complex Hudson Tunnel Project—is on the list of “New Starts” projects that would be passed up for funding.
The budget also proposes terminating the $175 million Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which subsidizes flights in and out of rural airports. Targeting rural access to rail and air travel might seem to directly affect Trump’s support base, but this document seems to operate on the assumption that rural Americans do not wish to travel further than their cars can take them, as it shows an unflinching commitment to funding new roads and highways.
Specifically, the budget gives props to the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects grant program, which “supports larger highway and multimodal freight projects with demonstrable national or regional benefits,” according to the document.
A few salient points to remember: This budget does nothing to touch the largest pot of federal transportation spending, which is the Highway Trust Fund. Money from the (ever insolvent) fund, which is fed by a gas tax that hasn’t budged in 24 years, is allocated based on the intransigent 80-20 percent split for highways and mass transit; it will take a huge act of congressional will to change that formula one way or another.
Indeed, Congress settles the federal budget, not the president. Democratic lawmakers have called out what they see as “the big fat lies” implicit in this budget when it comes to Trump’s commitment to transportation infrastructure, and Republicans have also pledged to push back on specific cuts. Transportation secretary Elaine Chao has herself made statements in support of the TIGER program. The President may just be lobbing dirtballs at buses, trains, and planes—now it’s up to Congress to either join in or fire back.
Whatever happens next, one thing is certain: Transit funding, which was already tenuous in recent administrations, is not about to get easier to come by.