A closer look at USDOT’s transit intransigence

After his administration’s drastic budget cuts for transit were rebuffed by Congress, President Trump’s Department of Transportation (USDOT) has a new strategy: just sit on the money as long as possible. Of the $2.3 billion that Congress has given USDOT for transit capital investments since Trump took office, USDOT has distributed a meager 20 percent to transit projects waiting for funding. These avoidable delays are costing local communities money and putting jobs at risk.

Earlier this month, Transportation for America—a program of Smart Growth America—released a resource cataloguing the Trump administration’s attempts to slow federal transit funding to a  crawl. Stuck in the Station showed that just 1.8 percent of the $1.4 billion that Congress had given to the administration in early 2018 for the purpose of building and expanding transit systems across the country had actually been obligated—to one single project.

This week, Transportation for America updated Stuck in the Station to tell the full story of the administration’s time in office, not just 2018. As it turns out, the entire story is even worse. Over the last two years, USDOT has spent less than a fifth of the funds it was given by Congress in 2017 and 2018, collectively.

Meanwhile, at least 17 vital transit projects are awaiting federal grants ranging from $20 million to over $100 million. And even that might not be the full story—the information in Stuck in the Station is based on what Transportation for America could be cobbled together from press releases, news reports, and documents on USDOT’s website. As T4America noted in a recent post :

To this point, we’ve already heard that several project sponsors are in the dark about the status of their projects or exactly what [USDOT] is waiting to receive from them to move forward.

Why isn’t there a clear list published by USDOT with the dates these agreements were signed? And how much money from the previous year (FY17) has USDOT still not obligated at this point? Why is it so hard to find this information?

As the media started poking around after the initial release of Stuck in the Station, USDOT—or more specifically, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA)—responded through an anonymous spokesperson. Transportation for America broke down their disingenuous response:

Putting aside the obvious point that FTA’s reason for existence is to help shepherd communities through the process and meet the requirements, it’s incredibly unclear—even to the locals trying to build these projects, in many cases—where these projects stand in the process.

FTA has also had two years in many cases to get these projects to the point where they’re ready. And when it comes to FTA’s suggestion that they have indeed advanced projects forward…

FTA suggested in their response to reporters that ten projects have received “new” full funding grant agreements (FFGAs) since 2017. But only two of those are actual big ticket New Starts or Core Capacity transit projects: The CalTrain electrification project and the Maryland Purple Line project were both holdovers from the Obama administration that moved forward because of intense political pressure or the resolution of a pending legal dispute, respectively. The other eight projects FTA shared with one reporter were all Small Starts projects, but only one of those received any funding from FY18. All of the rest were funded through money still unobligated from one of the last two fiscal years (FY16-17).

How is this legal?

The Government Accountability Office warned the FTA back in May about their unwillingness to follow parts of the law when it comes to disbursing transit funding:

Following the enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, FTA officials told us that they are reviewing the law and determining next steps. However, they did not indicate that they have any immediate plans to address those provisions. Moving forward, if FTA does not take steps to address the outstanding provisions, FTA runs the risk of violating federal law.

This excellent piece from Laura Bliss at CityLab explains this particular issue in more depth. Congress has also weighed in, noting that they’ve already rejected USDOT’s requests to end the transit capital program and urging them to do what the law requires:

The Committee is particularly concerned that FTA has no immediate plans to address outstanding statutory provisions because the Administration’s budget request does not include any new CIG projects. The Committee is dismayed that FTA is ignoring statutory mandates in order to reflect a budget request that has been consistently rejected by Congress and directs the Department to implement the GAO recommendations within 60 days of the date of enactment of this act.

Legal or not, USDOT’s foot-dragging is having a real impact on city and project budgets. In Sacramento, CA, which is waiting for federal funding for a streetcar, local Councilman Jeff Harris remarked in the Sacramento Bee about how avoidable delays are putting the entire project in jeopardy. “‘It’s getting a little tedious,’ he said. ‘There comes a cut-off line where you just can’t invest any more on a promise.’”

Even future projects are being affected. In Dallas, TX, which is expecting federal funds to complete an ambitious project to extend 28 light rail platforms to run longer trains and increase capacity throughout the system, a future transit tunnel under downtown is in jeopardy given USDOT’s actions. From the Dallas News:

The [downtown transit tunnel] still depends on a $320 million grant administered by the Federal Transportation Administration—a source of funding that has slowed. 

“The administration changed, and it has not been very favorable to transit,” said Lee Kleinman, a Dallas City Council member and chairman of the city’s mobility committee. “It’s anybody’s best guess as to when they start funding these grants again.”

USDOT has become the biggest obstacle in the way of delivering transit projects on time and on budget. Wasn’t this administration supposed to be all about delivering projects more quickly and cutting the red tape?

Kleinman is right: it’s anyone’s guess when USDOT will start doing it’s job. But Transportation for America will keep working to hold them accountable. If you’d like to take action, head over the Stuck in the Station and send a message to USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao.

View the updated Stuck in the Station and take action