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Trump infrastructure cuts ‘debilitating’ to public transit, say local officials

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Potential $52 billion in cuts would hinder rail and mass transit systems across the nation

People exit Sound Transit light rail train inside Pioneer Square station taken Seattle, Washington on June 24, 2016

Leaders of public transit agencies across the country spoke out against the administration’s proposed cuts to federal transit funding yesterday, expressing dismay and confusion at how the changes would conflict with Trump’s stated goal of improving the nation’s infrastructure.

At a D.C. press conference hosted by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the organization’s president and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said that while the group is fully supportive of the president’s stated goal of improving infrastructure, the proposed budget cuts would sacrifice federal transit funding. By redirecting money towards more highways, it would, in effect, “rob Peter to pay Paul.”

“It seems the administration is trying to pay for the package by cutting vital public transit programs,” said Skoutelas.

Focused on stimulating local and private funding by using federal money as a catalyst, Trump’s recent budget and infrastructure proposals would cut, and in some cases eliminate, federal programs for mass transit. The potential $52 billion in cuts would impact the TIGER program and Capital Investment Grants, as well as funding for Amtrak and the Washington, D.C. Metro system. Analysts expect Congress will temper those cuts in the final 2019 budget.

Skoutelas says the proposed cuts would endanger 53 projects in the pipeline across the nation, putting 500,000 jobs at risk, including both general construction and related manufacturing jobs.

“I think we’re all losing momentum, as projects sit in line, literally,” said Carm Basile, chief executive officer at the Capital District Transportation Authority in Albany, New York.

Light rail train ready for departure at the Denver Union Station.

During the press conference, a number of local transit leaders provided insight into how reduced federal funding would impact their communities. Municipalities, many of whom already raised taxes to pay for expanded transit investments, need the federal government to maintain transit funding at historically consistent levels.

The federal government has traditionally paid for roughly 43 percent of public transit projects, according to Skoutelas. The Trump administration’s cuts would lower the federal contribution to roughly 20 percent, which would be “debilitating to local communities. Skoutelas compared that to federal support for highway projects, which often reaches 80 percent.

Peter Rogoff, CEO of Sound Transit in Seattle, pointed to his agency’s rail expansion, the largest in the country, which has helped ridership triple in the last six years. He was “mystified” that the administration’s budget priorities don’t match the president’s own vision of “gleaming railroads.” He was thankful that Congress said it would remove the proposed cuts from the budget, and “hopes the president can get on board.”

He later expressed frustration at the priorities expressed in the White House plan.

“Players in the administration have called these transit projects ‘local’ projects,” he says. “We bristle at that. The projects we’re talking about would take thousands of cars off Interstate 5, a critical trade corridor. Metro areas generate the majority of the economic impact in all but three states. I’m trying to understand why rural roads—all worthy investments—aren’t considered local projects, while transit in major international economic hubs are.”

David Genova, general manager and CEO of Denver’s Regional Transportation District, underscored how interconnected transit, development, and economic success are. The Denver area has seen a multibillion-dollar transit and rail expansion, a celebrated example of the kind of public-private investment the president says he supports.

“We found that every dollar spent on transit generated $4 in economic impact,” he said.

Without federal grant programs, some which are on the chopping block, the Denver region would not have been able to build out a system that more and more commuters, and businesses, now rely on. Genova says 40 percent of the system’s patrons are transit-dependent, and need it to move around the city, while 39 percent of the downtown Denver workforce uses transit.

“At the end of the day, we need everyone at the table,” says Paul Wiedefeld, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “We need money for repair efforts, and to plan for the future.”