Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
From El Paso to Minneapolis, local rail and bus projects are waiting on federal money that should have arrived by now.
Remember the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill? Heavily touted by President Donald Trump on the campaign trail and in his first year of office as a plan to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land,” the idea is all but dead in Congress 18 months into his administration.
Like a nasty pothole, Trump’s unkept promises on road-and-rail dollars have given transportation fans a mild case of whiplash. But there may be worse harm in another infrastructure lapse on the part of this administration, this one more basic: $1.4 billion promised to transit projects across the U.S., still unallocated by the Federal Transit Administration for no clear reason.
From New York to Los Angeles, El Paso to Minneapolis, 17 rail and rapid bus projects are awaiting grants promised by the federal appropriations bill signed into law by Trump in March 2018. But the funds have still not been delivered nearly five months later. Make that 144 days, 20 hours, and 15 minutes later, as of this writing, according to a splashy countdown clock built by Transportation For America, a progressive transportation policy organization.
Here’s the full list of projects counting down the minutes, from TFA:
- Albuquerque, NM Central Avenue BRT
- Dallas, TX DART Red & Blue Line Platform Extensions
- El Paso, TX BRT Extension
- Jacksonville, FL Southwest BRT
- Los Angeles, CA Purple Line Extension (LRT), Section 3
- Minneapolis, MN Blue Line (LRT) Extension
- Minneapolis, MN Green Line (LRT) Extension
- Minneapolis, MN Orange Line BRT
- New York City, NY Canarsie (L) Line Improvements
- Orange County, CA Streetcar
- Reno, NV Virginia Street BRT
- Sacramento, CA Riverfront Streetcar
- Seattle, WA Lynnwood LRT extension
- Seattle, WA Madison Street BRT
- South Shore (IN/IL) Commuter Rail Double Tracking
- St. Petersburg, FL Central Avenue BRT
- Tempe, AZ Streetcar
Authorities in these cities have been counting on federal dollars to move ahead with planning and construction, and many have already committed hundreds of millions in local resources toward their completion. The FTA’s procedural slowdown is worrying transit agencies, consternating commuters and advocates, and embarrassing the political leaders who championed the projects. And delays, no matter the kind, tend to increase the costs of what are already super expensive undertakings—an issue the Trump administration has itself complained about at length.
The transit projects in question were already on track to receive different types of Capital Investment Grants from the FTA, and for which Congress approved funding in March. “These are all projects that are approaching the end of the pipeline, with no clear reason why they shouldn’t move forward,” said Scott Goldstein, the policy director for Transportation for America. Normally, the agency would keep Congress and the public informed about which projects are expected to proceed with federal funding; in the absence of that information, many cities are in limbo, uncertain about what’s required to advance.
The Lynnwood Link Extension, just north of Seattle, is on this list. Sound Transit, the Washington state commuter rail operator, is pushing ahead on a multi-decade expansion, with $54 billion in voter-approved local tax dollars. To start building, it’s waiting on its first round of funds from a $1.17 billion New Starts Engineering grant, which was approved by the FTA in February 2016.
In December 2017, Sound Transit sent in their Full Funding Grant Agreement application, generally the last stage in the process before the money hits. (For a comparison of how this worked in the Obama administration, read Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog.) “Sound Transit anticipates receipt of a Full Funding Grant Agreement in mid-2018, and the start of revenue service in mid-2024,” reads the FTA’s November 2017 grant profile, which rates the Lynwood project “Medium-High” across a number of characteristics, including its local financial commitment. Seattle-area taxpayers are footing more than 60 percent of this project’s cost.
But mid-2018 came and went, and no federal funding sign-off arrived, even as Sound Transit and local congressional representatives have pleaded to the FTA to follow through. The reasons for the delay are opaque, local leaders say. “We are continuing to make our case with the administration and hopeful to secure the Lynnwood grant this year,” said Geoff Patrick, Sound Transit’s deputy executive director of communications.
The FTA may be getting into legally murky territory if it doesn’t distribute the money by the end of the fiscal year. Congress specifically advised the agency to fund the projects under the last omnibus spending bill. In fact, in the body of that bill, Congress went so far as to include the due date for those funds—December 31, 2019—and a stern reminder to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, to “continue to administer the capital investment grant program in accordance with the procedural and substantive requirements” of the law.
Never before has an appropriations bill contained such strongly worded language, said Goldstein. “This was the first year Congress said, ‘You have to spend this.’”
The FTA disputes the claim by Transportation For America that the list of projects are “ready-to-go.”
“None of the projects listed have met the requirements in law for receipt of Capital Investment Grants funding,” an FTA spokesperson said. Many of the projects remain in the grant document preparation phase, or have engineering and design work yet to be completed, he explained. Another Seattle-based project, the Madison BRT, has engineering work that still requires resolving, the spokesperson noted. He did not specify the issue with the Lynwood extension or other projects on the list. This story will be updated if one is provided.
Other red flags have popped up at the FTA for local transit leaders. The federal agency has recently suggested that only projects with full funding grant agreements already in place should be eligible for capital funding—something more than 70 bipartisan members of Congress strongly disputed in a letter to their colleagues drafting a 2019 transportation spending bill. The FTA has also said that it is reassessing how it rates the value of a project’s local funding match. The criteria change could retroactively hurt projects that already have full funding grant agreements in place, including two new sections of L.A.’s Purple Line and the Washington Metro’s Silver Line connection to Dulles International Airport.
Other transportation spending programs are not experiencing these hurdles, said Goldstein. That may point to a simpler motivation. According to Transportation For America’s new countdown webpage: “FTA is dragging its feet on advancing these projects and distributing these dollars, ostensibly just because the administration doesn’t like transit.”
It’s not hard to see the FTA’s procedural slowdown as a manifestation of the Trump administration’s hostility to the needs of America’s left-leaning urban centers in general, and mass transit in particular. Historically speaking, Republicans and public transportation have not traveled well together. The 2016 Republican party platform proposes “to phase out the federal transit program.” The Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank, has long held that local transit projects are a waste of federal funding. Transportation Secretary Chao previously held a Heritage Foundation fellowship.
The FTA’s tight grip on capital grants isn’t the first time the Trump administration has resisted their legal obligations to fund federal programs—former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson resisted spending $80 million to fight propaganda from ISIS and Russia.
What happens if the transit grants aren’t issued by the end of 2019? Local transit agencies could sue, if they have standing, Goldstein said. The Government Office of Accountability could also make inquiries to the FTA, or even file a lawsuit under the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, designed to fight agencies that fail to release obligated federal funds. (The law was inspired by President Nixon’s refusal to disburse billions in federal funds during his corruption-riddled time in office, to which Trump’s administration is frequently compared.)
Congress could also choose to defund the capital investment program. “If the administration stops administering, it’s very hard to make a collaborative program like this work,” said Beth Osborne, a vice president of Transportation For America. “This is where earmarks come from, when the administration can no longer be trusted to do its job.”