Administration thwarting Congress by withholding transit funds

Administration thwarting Congress by withholding transit funds
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For several months, several public transit and urban development advocacy groups have been highlighting a very troubling problem created by the inaction of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Despite significant increases appropriated by Congress to new transit projects around the country — totaling about $2.325 billion for 2017 and 2018 — FTA has distributed only about $532 million in funds so far, a mere 23 percent. As of today, $1.8 billion has yet to be released.

Projects being deprived of resources are located in many cities around the country including Dallas, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, New York, and Minneapolis. One project in Albuquerque did receive its funding in late August, after a public outcry at the FTA for withholding the funds.

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When FTA fails to obligate the appropriated money to local jurisdictions, the proposed projects have to be re-bid and costs rise as the price of materials, labor, equipment and real estate all increase. This can mean that there is no longer enough money to perform the work. Such scenarios have already occurred in projects proposed in Seattle, Sacramento, and several other cities.

The Trump administration has basically admitted that it doesn’t like public transit. In its budget requests for fiscal 2017 and 2018, it significantly reduced the Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program, through which these transit projects are funded.

In its fiscal 2019 budget proposal, the administration limited funding to existing full funding agreements, stating that “For the remaining projects in the CIG program, FTA is not requesting or recommending funding.”  

Future investments in new transit projects would [have to] be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these projects.” This fails to take into account the fact that many people outside of these jurisdictions use and benefit from these public transportation systems to conduct important business activities. For instance, having fewer cars on the roads makes it easier and faster for farmers to deliver goods to their urban markets. The administration's parochial line of thinking also neglects the environmental benefits to the nation and the world achieved by reducing the number of cars on the roads.

The CIG program, in existence in some form since 1965, requires that projects have prior funding commitments from state, local or other federal government sources or from the private sector. Under previous administrations, including the Obama administration, those funding levels were typically around 50 percent to qualify for the CIG program. Based on Trump administration statements earlier this year regarding infrastructure funding, some analysts estimate that 80 percent or more of funding would now have to come from outside sources for a project to be admitted into the CIG program. That makes public transportation projects much harder to launch.

In May, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional nonpartisan watchdog, submitted a report to Congress stating that FTA needs to meet its statutory mandates regarding CIG by funding transit projects that meet the established criteria. GAO went as far as stating that “FTA runs the risk of violating federal law.”

Yet, FTA has ignored these recommendations and continued to delay funding. GAO also stated that FTA had indicated it was not even going to issue regulations regarding the evaluation and rating process for CIG projects. This undermines the process even further since these regulations are necessary to meet FTA’s statutory requirements.

It appears that FTA’s claim that the projects have not provided sufficient information to warrant release of the funds is specious and false, given that similar submissions from local jurisdictions have received funding in previous years after submitting the equivalent amount of information to FTA.

Why is the Trump administration really refusing to fund public transit, even though infrastructure spending is supposedly one of its top priorities and deficit spending is clearly not a major concern?

One of the overriding U.S. goals in transportation policy is to promote energy efficient and sustainable transportation systems. A robust public transit system is essential to achieving that goal. The need to reduce congestion on roads and highways will continue to increase, as will the need to move people within and among cities efficiently and safely. The urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and other air pollutants) associated with automobiles will also continue to mount as the nation and the world struggle to mitigate climate change.

A set of policies and actions promoting public transportation is an essential component of a sensible modern society. Let’s think about local needs and start funding public transit as Congress asked.

Carol Werner is the executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (www.eesi.org) is a non-profit organization founded by a bipartisan Congressional caucus that advances innovative policy solutions to set us on a clean, secure and sustainable energy path.

Richard Nunno is a policy fellow at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.