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Trump admin holding back billions in transit funding, say congressional critics

At D.C. hearing, critics claim capital grants appropriated for critical projects haven’t been given to local transit agencies

Light rail in Minneapolis. Funding for two line extensions have been held up, critics contend, by slow approvals and fund disbursement from the Federal Transportation Administration.

Are federal transit officials delaying crucial funding for public transportation projects? In a hearing yesterday in D.C., members of the House of Representative’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee questioned a Federal Transportation Authority (FTA) head about what they felt were delays in distributing already appropriated funds to local transit projects.

Representative Eleanor Norton, a non-voting member from the District of Columbia, asked during her introductory remarks if it was “deliberate slowing or rank inefficiency?”

The distribution of these funds, which are part of the Capital Improvement Grant program (CIG), and how fast the administration is providing them to local transit projects, highlights what advocates see as the Trump administration’s anti-

According to K. Jane Williams, acting administrator of the FTA, there hasn’t been any delays on behalf of her administration. They are simply doing due diligence on difficult projects.

“FTA is moving projects through the CIG program in accordance with the law,” said Williams. “It is a priority of the administration to streamline the process as much as possible.”

Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America, disagrees. Her group has compiled a list of dozens of projects across the country awaiting funding from this program , that have been harmed by FTA delays, including light rails projects in Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

“The Trump administration is undermining Americans’ access to jobs and improved quality of life by failing to release approved funding for transit projects,” she says.

According to Democratic Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, chair of the committee, of the $3.8 billion appropriated for the program over the last two years, the FTA is currently sitting on $2.4 billion in funding.

These delays create significant added costs. According to a survey of local transit agencies conducted by the committee and cited by DeFazio, FTA actions since 2017 have resulted in at least $845 million in extra costs for transit agencies, including $650 million resulting from changes to how the FTA assesses risks and $195 millions due to delayed approvals. These delays and changes, which were paid for by local governments, could have funded several more transit projects, the congressman noted.

In addition, the time it takes for projects to gain approvals have slowed down. The average number of days for a new transit line project, called a New Start Project, to get to the final phase of approvals grew to 391 days, compared to 172 days prior to 2017. The average number of days for a CIG project that costs less than $100 million, called a Small Start Project more than doubled, from 112 days before 2017 to 243 days now. In response, Williams defended the delays, saying that it was unfair for critics to compare the first two years of a new administration with that of the last two years of a two-term presidency.

Williams noted that there are extensive processes and approvals for complicated public transit projects, and her office is working on expediting projects and getting them approved. Critics of the administration’s approach, such as Osborne, say Trump’s FTA is hostile to transit—the 2016 Republican platform was anti-transit and the administration’s last two proposed budgets eliminated CIG funding—and doing everything it can, including changing procedures and delaying grant approvals, to harm and delay projects and ultimately choke them of funding by grinding the gears of government to a halt.

“You have to take this administration at their word,” she says. “They aren’t hiding their feelings about transit. They believe transit is a local issue that shouldn’t be funded by the federal government. Basically, the administration is begrudgingly providing funding.”

Chairman DeFazio also noted during questioning that, “[Mick] Mulvaney and his henchpeople at OMB (Office of Management and Budget) are still hostile to transit, and I assume that attitude filters down.”

These delays come at a time when requests for funding have risen dramatically, and project scopes have increased in size, as local governments struggle to expand transit to meet demand. Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association, testified that this debate over funding once again shows the pro-highway bias of U.S. transportation funding.

“We need to level the playing field and make it easier for modes other than highways to get funding and authorizations,” he said.

While there isn’t another hearing scheduled, Osborne expects more hearings like this in the future. She also believes that, if delays persist, that Congress may seek to change the appropriations process to take some power away from the FTA and streamline the process. But that’s a long-term solution that may not help projects currently at risk.

“It’s hard to get an anti-transit admin to be pro-transit,” she says. “If we want a more pro-transit administration, we need to elect a more pro-transit administration.”