$2 billion in Hurricane Sandy aid released, but sequester takes a bite

The $2 billion made available Thursday reflects the first tranche of $10.9 billion Congress directed to the Department’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, signed by President Obama on Jan 29.

“The Department has stepped up to address the worst transit disaster in U.S. history, which directly affected well over one-third of the nation’s transit,” FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said. “We are pledged to distribute the emergency relief funding responsibly and as quickly as possible to ensure that transit riders have the reliable service they need and deserve — and lay a strong foundation to mitigate the impact of such disasters in the future.”

Most of the remaining $8.9 billion would be released after the agency finalized additional regulations for how it could be spent. However, 5 percent of the total appropriation — $545 million — would be cut by the government-wide spending cuts known as sequestration.

The agency has said it plans to cover 90 percent of the cost of transit-related operating and capital projects undertaken in response to Hurricane Sandy.

Meanwhile, a new rule to be published in the Federal Register on Friday lays out guidelines for how the FTA would respond to future state or federally declared disasters. The new guidelines, which follow additional regulations meant to slash environmental red tape on post-disaster projects, are available here.

Authorized by last year’s transportation bill, the FTA’s Emergency Relief Program details new rules for federal grants deemed necessary after natural disasters or other catastrophes.

While the agency did not disclose potential funding totals, it suggested the high cost of Sandy was an anomaly.

“Hurricane Sandy was an extraordinary event resulting in historical damage to public transportation systems,” the rule says. “While it is impossible to predict how much funding Congress might appropriate for the Emergency Relief Program for extraordinary events such as Hurricane Sandy, in a typical year without an extraordinary event such as Hurricane Sandy, FTA does not expect this rule to have an economic impact greater than $100 million." 

While effective immediately, the rule is subject to public comment for 60 days after it is published, and the agency could tweak its details if changes are deemed necessary.