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.
L.A.’s newly reelected mayor Eric Garcetti may butt heads with the president over immigration. But congressional cuts to transit funding are more likely to derail his city’s transportation ambitions.
Mayor Eric Garcetti breezed to reelection in Los Angeles on Tuesday, but his second term will not be smooth. The Democrat will continue to shepherd the city through Measure M, a $121 billion transit initiative that passed overwhelmingly at November’s ballots. Hundreds of miles of new rail connections, bus-rapid transit lines, and robust bike infrastructure improvements promise to transform the city over the next 40 years.
While most of the cash will come from local taxpayer dollars, the projects hinge on a healthy dose of federal support—“which could make things awkward,” as VICE News reports in the video embedded above. President Trump has threatened to defund any cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities; L.A. remains a magnet for immigrants, and nearly one in ten people living in the county is believed to be undocumented. Though Garcetti has refused to use the term “sanctuary city” outright, he has pledged to make “all Angelenos feel safe, secure and welcome in our community” and has criticized Trump’s travel bans and immigration policies. To accomplish his “signature initiative,” VICE suggests, the mayor will need to negotiate a delicate relationship with the White House.
That’s as true for any Democratic big-city mayor as it is for Garcetti. But Trump and his threats probably aren’t the biggest problem for the many U.S. cities with ambitious transit plans—it’s the Republican-majority Congress that should have bus- and rail-fans shaking in their sneakers. Legally speaking, the president probably can’t withhold infrastructure funds on the basis of local immigration policies. More importantly, it’s Congress that deals with how transportation is funded, and its members are likely to be more attuned than Trump to local political conflicts over infrastructure investments, as seen in the unfolding showdown over a $647 million federal grant to a regional commuter train in the Bay Area.
Furthermore, rather than anticipating retribution for clashing with Trumpian ideology, cities should just prepare for serious transit funding cuts in general. Unless longstanding federal formulas are changed, the threadbare Highway Trust Fund will still pass onto states a handful of dollars to be used for public transportation. But the sharp axe hanging over agencies like the EPA and HUD could go after DOT, too; signature grant programs that have supported transit—such as TIGER and TIFIA—may get cut. After all, the Republican Party’s official platform calls for a total elimination of federal subsidies to public transportation. “A lack of federal funds at current levels would impact Metro’s ability to deliver project promises in Measure M,” Joni Goheen, the head of communications at L.A. Metro, told VICE. But it’s not just L.A. that might struggle to deliver—it’s all cities.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has emphasized the role that private investment will play in funding Trump’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure plans. Beliefs on how well public-private partnerships work for financing transit projects are mixed, to say the least. The CEO of L.A. Metro, Phil Washington, is a vocal proponent; some Measure M projects may stand a chance of speeding along with creative financing strategies that depend on industry. L.A. could be a model for how Trump-era cities do DIY infrastructure. For now, concerned transit lovers may want to pay less attention to the words coming out of the White House—and focus more on letting their representatives in Congress know how they feel.