Great Lakes Chambers of Commerce: Congressional leaders need to support transit funding
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The Trump administration recently released its long-anticipated infrastructure plan calling for spending $200 billion in federal funds to incentivize up to $1.5 trillion in total infrastructure investment. While many details still need to be worked out by congressional leaders, the plan is a positive step for this important national dialogue. However, our nation is in need of a drastic infusion of infrastructure investment, and before we move forward with new programs, we must ensure existing funding streams are secure, including the Capital Investment Grant program (CIG), which funds critical transit projects.

The administration also recently announced its fiscal year 2019 budget request, which severely cuts the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) transit funding. The request sets DOT discretionary spending to $15.6 billion for 2019, a $3.7 billion or 19-percent decrease from the 2017 enacted base discretionary level of $19.3 billion. The administration’s proposed budget proposes to wind down the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) CIG program, also known as New Starts/Small Starts, by limiting funding to projects with existing full funding grant agreements only. This would be detrimental to cities and transit agencies across the Great Lakes region and the United States.

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Forward thinking cities on strong growth trajectories are those that are connecting employment and innovation clusters with robust transit build outs. Many cities across the Great Lakes region have been answering this call and have been investing in these build outs. In Cleveland, the HealthLine, the city’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, connects the two largest regional employment areas, downtown Cleveland and University Circle. Since its inception in 2008, the HealthLine has delivered more than $6.3 billion in economic development – a staggering $114 gained for every dollar spent on creating and launching the new service.

Indianapolis’s IndyGo is in the process of building out its 13-mile, $90 million Red Line BRT project, which will further its transit investments. In Pittsburgh, the impending Pittsburgh Downtown- Oakland BRT project will connect two of the top three largest economic centers in Pennsylvania – downtown Pittsburgh and the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, home to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Importantly, both Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have projects in the CIG program pipeline that do not have full funding agreements, and thus, would be hurt by any winding down of the program. And these are not the only transit build outs in the Great Lakes region. Many of our cities are working hard to enhance their mobility by connecting their innovation and job clusters. 

To be successful in our local and regional efforts to enhance public transportation, we need continued federal investment in core programs. The CIG program is the federal government’s primary funding for major transit capital investments, including heavy rail, commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit. Without it, many projects would not get off the ground. While the administration proposed the elimination of core programs like the CIG, we are grateful to those bipartisan congressional leaders supporting continued investments. Congress largely rejected proposed cuts to the CIG program in 2017 and even included language in their fiscal year 2018 appropriations bills that directed the administration to continue to administer the program.

As Congress works to finalize the 2018 spending bill and begins the 2019 process, they must recommit to supporting transit funding. We call on the congressional members in the Great Lakes delegation to allocate robust funding and strong policy direction in the final spending packages. In our communities, we are working to raise local funds for these critical projects but we need a strong federal partner to help close the gap. We stand ready to support the administration’s work towards an infrastructure plan, but not at the expense of our existing federal infrastructure funding programs. Congress needs to support transit funding and the CIG program. The Great Lakes region’s ability to compete depends on it. 

Marty McGann (Greater Cleveland Partnership) and Brandon Mendoza (Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce) are Co-directors of the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition – a national collective of chambers of chambers across the Great Lakes region.