Public Transportation Avoided President Trump’s Axe. But ‘a Very Serious Blow’ Could be Coming

May 22, 2017

Advocates for public transportation funding breathed a sigh of relief last month when Congress disregarded President Donald Trump's budget proposal to gut a number of federal transit programs and instead voted to increase 2017 funding for many of those same initiatives. But for those who fear an axe to public funding for the nation's rail, bus and streetcar programs, the battle is only just beginning.

The Trump Administration this week is set to release its first full budget proposal for 2018 with the future of public transportation funding very much in doubt, despite frequent election year promises for big investments in infrastructure.

"Perhaps [Trump] contradicted a little bit of what he previously said about infrastructure," Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, a member of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, told Fortune.

After Trump's so-called "skinny budget" earlier this year proposed cutting funding for future transit projects, advocates and nonprofit organizations like the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) remain worried that Trump will once again move to phase out key programs.

At issue is the particular way some public transportation projects are funded. The Department of Transportation (DOT) will release its annual report for New Starts — the main program in question that provides funding for major transit projects — this week in tandem with Trump's full budget. By law, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) — an agency under the DOT umbrella whose administrator is appointed by the President — has to make recommendations in order for a project to be funded. But there is no statute saying that the FTA has to make any recommendations in the first place — regardless of what Congress wants.

"There has been no public backtracking on what's in the skinny budget," Andrew Brady, a senior director of government affairs for the APTA, told reporters on a recent conference call. "Taking [the White House] at its word and not seeing anything differently, we fully anticipate that there probably won't be any more new projects recommended for funding."

Mass transit proponents like Brady are worried that Trump's FTA could stick to the skinny budget's "threat" and not recommend new projects — effectively killing the New Starts program outside of initiatives that are already in the works from former President Barack Obama's administration.

"We are concerned that could happen in 2018," North Carolina Democratic Rep. David Price, ranking member on the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, said in an interview. "If anything like that were done — or even just to cut the money back to last year's appropriations — that would be a very serious blow to the program. That is the main danger."

Public transit is greatly in need of revitalization, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave public transit a "D-" as one of the categories among the country's overall "D+" infrastructure system. "Despite increasing demand, the nation’s transit systems have been chronically underfunded resulting in aging infrastructure and a $90 billion rehabilitation backlog," the March report said.

Trump has repeatedly pledged he would ask Congress to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure. While Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said earlier this month that the plan would be unveiled in the "next several weeks," neither she nor the President have offered any concrete details as to how it will be structured. And his administration's proposed $2.4 billion — or 13% — cut to the Department of Transportation may not be in line with such an investment.

But Dent pointed out that Trump's skinny budget was merely a proposal, which would need approval from Congress. "I always say the President proposes, Congress disposes," Dent said. "At the end of the day, Congress will write the appropriations that we need to make for the DOT and FTA."

Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning and director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, said that public transportation is, and must continue to be, a bipartisan investment.

"Both Republicans and Democrats have found that transit is important to their economic well-being," he said. "States and cities have put in an enormous effort to improve transit infrastructure and now we need federal support across the country to improve economic and environmental growth."

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