Federal funding for Maryland’s Purple Line is in jeopardy, as are Metro’s hopes for a significant increase in money from the government under President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget released Thursday.
Trump’s proposed spending plan, which slashes the federal transportation budget by 13 percent, also curbs long-distance Amtrak service out of Washington and cuts millions in federal grants that the region’s governments have relied on for new rapid bus lines, road work, bus stop improvements and bike paths.
The cuts came as a shock to many, considering Trump’s campaign pledge to pump $1 trillion into the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
“I find it hypocritical that [Trump] talks about infrastructure, and then he takes away infrastructure-funding programs,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.). “This is a devastating budget for the Washington region.”
Concerning to many local officials is that the initial transportation budget didn’t include many details or potential cost savings. That has left them bracing for more cuts if the administration is to reach its goal of reducing transportation spending by $2.4 billion.
Though Metro isn’t specifically mentioned in the skeleton document, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) ticked off a list of grant programs he’s worried about that have allowed the beleaguered transit agency to address safety issues and make long-delayed infrastructure improvements. And the news comes as Metro and its supporters are attempting to make the case for more federal funding for the transit agency.
Since 2008, Congress has appropriated $150 million annually for Metro’s capital improvement budget under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, known as PRIIA, which designated $1.5 billion for Metro over 10 years. Maryland, Virginia and the District match the $150 million each year.
Trump’s plan also cuts $2.8 million that Metro receives from the Transit Security Grant Program, which protects infrastructure and the public from acts of terrorism, under the Department of Homeland Security’s budget.
“This budget is clearly bad news for Metro in every way,” Connolly said. “It’s an assault on transit everywhere. And here in D.C. we are front and center the poster children for a transit system in desperate need of federal assistance.”
A spokesman for Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.), the region’s lone Republican in Congress, noted that the body “will determine its own budget priorities and appropriate accordingly.
“The Congresswoman has a clear record of fighting for additional transportation and infrastructure dollars for our area and she was able to restore the full $150 million federal share for Metro when other members were seeking to slash it,” said Jeff Marschner, deputy chief of staff for Comstock. “She will continue this fight during the upcoming appropriations season, as well as during consideration of any future infrastructure package.”
But the Maryland Transit Administration’s plan to build a 16-mile light-rail Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties appears to be at the most immediate risk.
The White House has proposed limiting transit construction aid to projects that already have full funding grant agreements. Maryland officials were four days away from signing such an agreement for about $900 million in federal aid in August. However, the federal government postponed the signing ceremony indefinitely Aug. 4, after a federal judge revoked the Purple Line’s environmental approval, which made it ineligible for federal funding. The court order was part of a ruling in a lawsuit opposing the rail plan.
Construction on the Purple Line was scheduled to start last fall but remains on hold as U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon reconsiders his ruling. The Purple Line can’t get a federal funding agreement until the environmental approval is reinstated.
Under Trump’s plan, transit projects that don’t have a federal funding agreement “would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.”
Maryland officials have long said that the state can’t afford to build the $2 billion rail line unless the federal government covers nearly half of the construction costs.
Prince George’s County Council member Dannielle M. Glaros (D-Riverdale Park) said she’d be surprised if the White House would forgo funding a major infrastructure project planned as a public-private partnership — just the kind of investment Trump campaigned on.
In addition to creating construction jobs, she said, the rail line would help more people reach major employment centers such as Bethesda, Silver Spring and the University of Maryland in College Park.
“Frankly, I think they’re missing the link between transit infrastructure and how that builds an economy and creates economic growth,” said Glaros, whose district includes much of the Purple Line alignment.
The region’s other major rail project, the Silver Line, is unlikely to be affected by the Trump budget since its funding agreements are already in place. The first phase of the $5.8 billion project added five new stations to the Metro system. A second phase, which will extend service to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, is scheduled to open for passenger service in 2020. The project, one of the largest under construction in the U.S., received $900 million in federal money and nearly $2 billion in federal loans.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she’s worried Trump’s budget will jeopardize plans to add buses or other transit along the Richmond Highway (Route 1) corridor and eventually to extend Metro’s Yellow Line beyond the Huntington station to Hybla Valley.
She’s also concerned about the White House proposal to eliminate the Tiger grant program, which has awarded more than $5 billion to projects across the United States since 2009. Bulova said such grants helped pay for widening Richmond Highway between Telegraph Road and Huntington Avenue and for a transit study in that area.
“Tiger grants are something we use all the time in Fairfax County and the Northern Virginia region,” Bulova said.
The budget also eliminates federal funding for all 15 of Amtrak’s long-distance routes, including the Capitol Limited train between Washington and Chicago and the Auto Train, which runs nonstop between Lorton, Va., and Florida. The White House plan said long-distance train lines “have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses.”
Amtrak President and CEO Charles W. Moorman said Amtrak covered 94 percent of its total operating costs through ticket sales and other revenue in fiscal 2016.
“These trains connect our major regions, provide vital transportation to residents in rural communities and generate connecting passengers and revenue for our Northeast Corridor and State-Supported services,” Moorman said in a statement.
Plans to build new transit lines across the country would be hard hit under the proposal.
Those include a major rail project in Silicon Valley, a subway line extension in Los Angeles, a light-rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill in North Carolina, a commuter rail project in Lake County, Ind., and a new tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan.
The 17.7-mile North Carolina project is seeking more than $1 billion in federal construction money.
“Without federal funds, that project would not be able to move forward,” said Mike Charbonneau, spokesman for GoTriangle, the region’s transit provider.
For Purple Line supporters, Trump’s proposal adds new urgency to resolving the lawsuit and getting the project’s funding eligibility restored before the rules for federal funding could change. For opponents, the White House has offered new hope that an extended legal fight could cause it to miss out on federal funding.
The east-west line would run inside the Capital Beltway between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.
“We won’t know if there is an impact to the Purple Line until a final budget is passed by Congress and the appropriations process is complete,” said Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation
But Maryland elected officials were blunt about their concerns. Any loss of federal funding probably would unravel a highly complex $5.6 billion public-private partnership on a project that underlies the growth and economic development plans for the state’s inner Washington suburbs. In addition to improving east-west transit, state and local officials hope the Purple Line’s 21 stations will attract investment to surrounding areas, particularly in older, struggling communities in Prince George’s.
Moreover, Van Hollen said, cuts to new transit construction funding would “pull the plug” on state plans to build a rapid bus system in upper Montgomery’s heavily congested Interstate 270 corridor.
Van Hollen said he’s also concerned about the potential loss of federal funding for Metro.
“When they’re cutting the overall transit budget by large amounts,” he said, “we’ll have to work very hard to maintain that federal commitment.”
Michael Laris and Robert McCartney contributed to this report.