clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Will Trump make the trains run on time?

Billions of dollars worth of subways, highways, and bullet trains are at stake under the Trump administration

When Donald Trump succeeds Barack Obama on January 20, the transition will mark the first time in American history that a president from one of the nation’s largest cities (New York) succeeds another president from one of the nation’s largest cities (Chicago).

Neat. But don’t take that as a sign of a smooth handoff of urban policy, especially regarding that particular daily reality for tens of millions of city-dwelling Americans: public transit. Transportation animates a sizable chunk of urban planning in today’s cities and is one place where the federal government has potential to significantly affect the daily lives of city dwellers.


Much of Obama’s urban policy during the past eight years has worked toward fostering and preserving the notion of densely developed, transit-oriented, heterogeneous American cities, where bike share programs are as de rigueur as parking meters and 400-square-foot studios are coveted prizes.

Trump, on the other hand, is largely a blank slate on cities. From New York—Queens born and raised—but not of New York, he has spent most of his adult life in gilded real estate and chauffeured cars, not on the sidewalks and in the subway trains.

Trump has said little about what he will do regarding municipal must-haves, like public transit, that require formidable federal largesse. (His transition team did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Moreover, his nominations for key posts that affect urban life have sent mixed signals.

And, finally, the voters that swept him surprisingly into office do not hail, by and large, from cities. Hillary Clinton won 88 of the nation’s 100 most populous counties, including those that contain Los Angeles, Chicago, and most of New York.

Might urban policy take a backseat to other priorities of a Trump administration? Or, worse, might the new president exact fiduciary vengeance on the urbanites who went blue? (Several cities have said they will defy Trump’s mass deportation plans by remaining "sanctuary cities.")

"I think there are a lot of reasons why we should hope that the next administration doesn’t pull money away from essential things like transportation, housing, and other things that are important for cities," says Rolf Pendall, co-director of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. "There is nothing I’ve heard so far from the president-elect or from anyone he’s named or nominated for the secretarial positions who have said categorically ‘end all of these important programs for housing and transportation.’

"And," Pendall adds, "they haven’t been shy about naming programs and even departments that they would be happy to see disappear."

The incoming administration’s approach to the nuts and bolts of major cities could turn out to be more pragmatic than problematic.

Cities can only hope so.


The Republican platform, adopted just before Trump accepted the party’s nomination this summer, is particularly withering in its criticism of current transportation policy. It criticizes the Obama administration’s seven-year-old livability initiative, which basically promotes urban development centered on walking or public transit.

"[The administration] subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit," the platform reads. "Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.’" (The quotation refers to a comment made by former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.)

Instead, the RNC proposes less focus on—and funding for—public transit and pedestrian-friendly communities, and a greater focus on driving. In particular, the platform reiterates the Republican party’s opposition to any increase in the federal gasoline tax and calls for states and localities to fund more of their own public transit needs, including through "public-private partnership agreements."

Trump’s party also wants to end federal support for what the RNC platform calls "boondoggles" such as the high-speed rail link connecting California’s major cities, which began construction in 2015. And they would open up Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, the railroad’s busiest section, to "private ventures."

How much would hitting the brakes on federal spending cost transit lines like the Northeast Corridor and development projects such as California’s high-speed rail?

The latest Congressional Budget Office numbers, from 2014, show that the federal government spent about $96 billion in funding that year for transportation, including highways and public transit. (The figure also includes spending on the transportation of water.) Another $320 billion came from local and state governments.

While this might make it seem like states and even some cities could pick up the slack of any federal spending cuts, a drill-down into the numbers suggests otherwise.

Just to start, the nation’s transportation infrastructure needs at least $86 billion in repairs and replacements, according to 2013 numbers from the Federal Transit Administration. (Some peg the figure much, much higher.)

Rail systems—in particular, the subway systems in New York, Boston, and Chicago—comprise the majority of that need. These systems, though closely associated with their home cities, are funded largely through the federal government and especially through sources within their respective states, such as tax revenues and tolls.

As for capital projects—those big, new transit initiatives such as the recently opened inaugural segment of New York’s Second Avenue Subway—the federal government plays a large case-by-case role.

Plans for a 4.7-mile extension of Boston’s Green Line, for instance, are predicated on $996 million in federal grants—or about 43 percent of the project. The federal government is putting up $3.3 billion of the $6 billion first leg of that California high-speed rail system, from Madera to Bakersfield.

Meanwhile, the federal government spent $1.85 billion in 2016 helping underwrite Amtrak, which also receives funding from 18 states and agencies. (Broken down by miles traveled per passenger, that federal number is not so monumental—Amtrak’s subsidy roughly equals that of the feds’ subsidy for highway driving).

And the federal government is responsible for the vast bulk of the $29.5 billion capital budget of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation’s largest transit agency, which oversees New York City’s subways and commuter lines, among other modes of transportation.

If a President Trump curtails such funding, it could spell the end of such significant capital projects. It could also doom repairs for aged subway systems in Chicago, New York, et al.

That all depends again, though, on if a President Trump unsheathes the federal paring knife.


A veritable meme during the campaign was Trump’s commitment to infrastructure spending—as much as $1 trillion—even if that is at odds with some fellow Republicans in Congress, who so far have not seemed enthusiastic about passing the plan.

Some in the field are hearing that Trump’s people might be amenable to helping fund less costly projects that are well-planned and already have some non-federal funding in hand. The incoming administration is also expected to be comfortable with a dualistic approach to funding these projects: through both tax credits, which Republicans favor, and government-organized grants, which Democrats like.

"I think the message that we’re expecting to receive is that Washington will help those who help themselves," says Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy organization in the New York area.

Wright is also a board member of an organization backing the proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector, a 16-mile streetcar project along New York City’s East River waterfront. He cites it as an example of what a Trump administration might support in terms of urban development: It’s plotted out to its completion; has non-federal funding in place; and, at approximately $2.5 billion, its construction cost is relatively low.

"When you do anything like this," Wright says, "there’s going to have to be good planning, good ideas, and local funding to jumpstart this thing. Gone are the days when D.C. would pay for 90, 100 percent of a project." It’s been a long time since the federal government made those kinds of investments; Wright cites the Interstate Highway System as one example.

Unlike the head-scratching that Trump’s choice of Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development sparked, Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao, has experience in her allocated field—she served as deputy Transportation secretary in George H.W. Bush’s administration and worked on transit financing while in the private sector at Citigroup.

In 2004, when she was labor secretary under George W. Bush, Chao voiced support for public transportation unusual for a Republican, then or now: "Coordinated transportation is one of the most important, and perhaps least appreciated, components of a transition from a life of unemployment and dependency for Americans to one of employment and productivity."

Otherwise, though, Chao has no clear position on highway spending vs. spending on public transit, for instance—nor does her future boss.

"Details are scant, but there is reason to be very worried," says Paul Steely White, executive director of New York advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. White sees a looming "disinvestment from public transit," but also an opportunity for cities "to take greater charge of their own destinies" in terms of finding or rediscovering ways to fund and expand existing transit systems.

"Now is the time," White adds, "to embrace our urbanity."

Tom Acitelli is the editor of Curbed Boston.

Longform

How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis

Longform

The Neighbors Issue

Longform

Bungalow Courts Make the Best Neighbors

View all stories in Longform