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.
A GAO report says the FTA “runs the risk of violating federal law” as it blocks rail and bus projects.
What happens when a government administration stops administering? Right now, urban commuters are finding out.
The Federal Transit Administration, the U.S. agency responsible for funding and guiding new fixed-route local transit projects, has officially become unaccountable to its basic duties, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office. Its findings are the latest sign that the FTA is blocking federal support for rail and bus systems, with no apparent rationale but party ideology.
Specifically, the GAO report reveals that FTA is failing to uphold three out of four provisions of the last two transportation bills passed by Congress, MAP-21 and the FAST Act. Those unmet provisions include:
- Streamlining evaluations for the “Core Capacity” grant program, which helps fix existing infrastructure. (Think of the New York City subway’s ongoing signal and track repairs.)
- Establishing a program that allows transit agencies to develop multiple projects at once using the FTA’s capital investment grants, in order to encourage regional planning. (Think of how Los Angeles and Seattle are building multiple new rail lines as part of decades-long, system-wide plans.)
- Piloting a new program that delivers those capital investment grants for a few local projects with exceptionally high grant criteria ratings. (For example, if they require only 25 percent of total project costs to be covered by the federal government, the report explains.)
According to the report, FTA leaders acknowledged that they have no intention of picking up the pace on meeting their responsibilities. “Throughout this review, FTA officials told GAO they do not have immediate plans to address these three statutory provision,” the GAO states. Their obstinance appears to be motivated by nothing more complex than the Trump administration’s dislike of transit. “Officials cited a proposal by the President to phase out the Capital Investment Grants program as one of the factors influencing this decision,” the GAO report states, referring to the last White House budget’s recommendation to eliminate these funds.
But Congress did not follow Trump’s anti-transit cue. To the contrary, the last spending bill from March 2018 allocated $2.6 billion to the Capital Investment Grants program and specifically required the FTA to administer it according to its statutory requirements. The White House’s lack of enthusiasm for public transportation does not give the agency the right to disobey Congress’ instructions, the GAO says. From the report: “Moving forward, if FTA does not take steps to address the outstanding provisions, FTA runs the risk of violating federal law.”
As Trump-related legal violations go, this may not be quite as buzzy as others that come to mind. But the stakes are high for cities. It isn’t just that the FTA isn’t providing guidance and oversight that the law requires. The FTA is also failing to fund transit projects already in line for capital grants according to normal schedule. Right now, more than a dozen cities around the U.S. are in limbo as they await $1.4 billion in federal funds obligated to them. Local transit agencies and political leaders work for years to qualify for these types of grants, and build voter support for the new rail lines and rapid bus systems that depend on them. The FTA’s disbursal delays are costing cities, politically and financially.
In a letter included in the GAO report, Keith Nelson, the assistant secretary for administration at the Department of Transportation, disputed the conclusion that the FTA is not addressing Congress’ provisions. But he agreed with the recommendation by the GAO that it needs to take steps to fulfill its various obligations, and stated that “the FTA could not specify when action will be taken to address the outstanding provisions.”
What happens when a federal administration subverts its fundamental purpose? It’s a question that has come up time and again during Donald Trump’s presidency. (See also: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ rollbacks on students’ civil rights protections and regulations on for-profit schools, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s selling off of the public lands his department is charged to manage, or the EPA’s efforts to dismantle emissions standards.)
The Federal Transit Administration—born of President Johnson’s efforts to save depopulated urban centers from collapse in the 1960s—now seems to be undertaking a similar reversal in its core mission: Indeed, its interests appear more closely aligned with the anti-transit, fossil fuel lobby than the millions of commuters it was created to serve.