Toning Down Transit

Federal Transit Administration cuts funding for mass transit projects

News Transportation
Several major expansion projects, like  New York's Second Avenue Subway, have not yet received the annual grants promised by the Federal Transit Administration, and the money may never come. (Courtesy Creative Commons)
Several major expansion projects, like New York's Second Avenue Subway, have not yet received the annual grants promised by the Federal Transit Administration, and the money may never come. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

This week the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) opened up an online survey inviting state transportation departments, transit agencies, transit operators, and other stakeholders—meaning you, the American public—to offer their opinions on what constitutes a “federal project.” Through August 17, the transportation authority wants to gather these opinions in order to redefine which projects the federal government, as opposed to state and local governments, should be funding. 

According to the FTA, the dialogue is meant to help the agency better understand how a “federal project” definition affects project delivery and solicits opportunities to improve the process of deciding when a project, project phase, or project element is subject to federal requirements. It’s important to reevaluate the definition, the FTA says, because sometimes not every element of an overall project is federally funded. The FTA hopes this effort will help it streamline and expedite investment in transit infrastructure.

News has been buzzing recently surrounding the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan released in February and how it’s seeking to cut the number of transit infrastructure projects that it’s funding, going so far as declining to distribute money already approved by congress for spending. Part of the administration’s plan is to shrink the FTA’s Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program, which provides money for “federal projects,” and the spending plan indicates that the administration would like a narrower definition of what constitutes a “federal project.” In turn, many projects or project elements previously covered will now be declared ineligible for the CIG program. 

The idea is to speed up federal investment on certain transit infrastructure, like roads and highways that cross state lines, while handing off the responsibility of paying for public transportation projects that facilitate intra-city movement, to local government agencies. 

According to the FTA’s recently released annual recommendations for 2019, only $1.046 billion will be granted for capital investment projects next year, which is half of what was approved for 2018 and one-third of what the FTA recommended during Obama’s last year in office. As of May, the FTA had only released $1.3 billion of the $2.6 billion already approved by Congress for 2018 through the CIG program and is now suggesting that it may not appropriate the rest of the money. If the money is not distributed by the end of 2019, it will be returned to the federal treasury.

This year the FTA has approved two projects for full construction grants and executed smaller grants for eight others, including Phase 2 of New York City’s Second Avenue Subway, Phoenix’s South Central Light Rail, Seattle’s Center City Connector, and Los Angeles’s Purple Line Extension. The FTA has announced that “future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.”  

This means that many critical projects already in the works within the CIG program may either suffer from significant delays due to lack of or decreased funding, or be stalled altogether if cities or private investors can’t pay for them. The FTA is asking stakeholders to respond to this narrowing of the definition of “federal projects” by completing their online survey.

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