President Trump’s transportation budget slashes federal aid to the nation’s rail systems by cutting funding for long-distance Amtrak service and severely limiting money to help expand transit lines and build new ones.
The $16.2 billion budget for discretionary transportation spending represents a nearly 13 percent reduction in transportation spending over fiscal 2017. That includes a $928 million cut from transit construction grants, nearly half of what Congress recently appropriated for this fiscal year, and a $630 million reduction in subsidies for long-distance Amtrak routes.
Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said cuts to Amtrak and transit would hit commuters and rural areas particularly hard.
The White House budget requests $76 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most of that -- $59.6 billion – would cover salaries for 55,229 employees and mandatory programs. The proposed cuts would come from the department’s discretionary spending.
Asked about what he saw in the budget, Jeans-Gail said, “I’m just looking at the smoking wreckage.”
The administration repeated an earlier pledge that it would not devote federal money to any transit construction projects that lack full funding grant agreements. Transit construction projects, the administration said, should be funded by the localities that benefit from them.
The $1.23 billion proposed for new transit construction appears to be enough to cover only projects that already have such agreements.
About 50 public transit projects in 23 states are at risk of losing federal support, according to the American Public Transportation Association. While some are in the early planning stages, others have been on the cusp of signing funding agreements. Those include the light-rail Purple Line in Maryland, a streetcar project in Orange County, Calif., a light-rail extension in the Minneapolis suburbs, and a light-rail extension north of Seattle.
The proposal, however, had some good news for the Washington region: It includes the annual $150 million in grant money for Metro repairs and maintenance, money that is matched by the local jurisdictions. Its inclusion means the region’s congressional delegation won’t have to lobby for the money, unless budget hawks in Congress try to remove it.
“We appreciate the administration’s leadership and recognition of the importance of Metro’s investment needs,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “This represents an important infrastructure investment in our regional and national asset.”
The $150 million is part of a 10-year, $1.5 billion investment in the transit agency, but the funds are subject to annual appropriations. Maryland, Virginia and the District match the $150 million each year.
Traditionally, the Federal Transit Administration has contributed up to half of the construction costs to build new transit lines, as well as to expand and modernize older ones.
Transit advocates said they would urge Congress to restore much of the funding for new construction, though the authority to spend that money appears to rest solely with the executive branch.
Details of which projects will be recommended for federal aid will be included in a separate FTA report expected to be released Wednesday.
Kate Brickman, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Council, which builds and operates the regional transit system in Minneapolis-St. Paul, said officials there are seeking $928 million in federal grants, with the hopes of breaking ground on a 14.5-mile light-rail extension later this year.
She said the region recently lined up money to cover its share of the light-rail line’s construction costs, which are expected to be nearly $1.9 billion.
“Getting our local funding wasn’t easy, given the large sum of money,” Brickman said. “If the federal government doesn’t come through, we’ll either need to find the money locally or stop the project.”
Brickman said the region has planned for the line for more than 20 years and has focused its economic development around the future light-rail stations. Moreover, she said, local employers say they need more light-rail to attract younger workers.
“We know we need it to be economically competitive in the future,” Brickman said.
Transit advocates were heartened when the FTA announced Monday that it would sign a multiyear funding agreement committing $647 million to electrify trains and expand capacity on a Caltrain rail line between San Francisco and San Jose.
Some transit advocates have taken the Caltrain agreement as a hopeful sign that the Trump administration, despite public statements to the contrary, might sign new agreements for projects that have cleared all other hurdles in the years-long federal funding process, including approvals by Congress.
However, the budget plan released Tuesday signals the Caltrain project could be the exception.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, a senior transportation department official said, “We are continuing to follow the statute and evaluate projects that are brought to FTA, but our president’s budget proposal is to wind down new investments in the future.”
Next in line of shovel-ready projects would be Maryland’s Purple Line, a 16-mile light-rail line to connect Washington suburbs inside the Capital Beltway, but the project remains stalled by a federal lawsuit. The state was five days from clinching a signed funding agreement last August when a court order in a lawsuit opposing the project made it ineligible for federal aid. Congress has appropriated $325 million toward the line’s construction, but Maryland officials can’t access that money until a federal judge restores its environmental approval.
A court ruling Monday further delayed the project by months, after a judge ordered Maryland officials to redo part of the project’s environmental impact study.
Trump’s budget calls long-distance Amtrak trains “a vestige of when train service was the only viable transcontinental transportation option” rather than the aviation, interstate highway and bus network now in place.
Moreover, the plan notes, long-distance trains are on schedule only 55 percent of the time and account for 15 percent of Amtrak’s ridership but 38 percent of the system’s operating costs. Long-distance routes have had net operating losses of about $500 million annually over the past decade, according to the budget document.
The administration said Amtrak should instead focus on improving its Northeast Corridor service, where it serves more densely populated areas between Washington and Boston.
But advocates say the proposal to eliminate $630 million in federal aid for long-distance Amtrak routes will hurt people who rely on them, particularly the elderly, and about 220 smaller communities in 23 states.
“These communities really depend on these trains as an economic lifeline,” Jeans-Gail said. “There are small-town, rural communities — ironically, the same communities that put Trump in the White House — where people can’t go to a local airport. Often, that one train a day is their only alternative to driving.”
Moreover, he said, it will be politically difficult to persuade Congress to appropriate money for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor while cutting it for much of the rest of the country.
“Expecting taxpayers in Mississippi to pay for tunnels for New Jersey and New York residents just doesn’t work,” Jeans-Gail said. “Everyone needs some skin in the game.”
Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), said his organization was still evaluating the proposal. However, he said, he’s concerned about federal cuts for long-distance trains and other public services that don’t typically attract the kind of private investment that the Trump administration has said it will use to fund infrastructure improvements.
“They likely won’t generate revenue that would be attractive to the private sector,” Wright said. “That’s why public investment is so important.”
Trump’s budget also proposes ending the TIGER grant program, which this fiscal year has $499 million for local transportation projects. Those projects should be funded under existing formula programs because they don’t “rise to the level of national or regional significance,” the plan said.
The budget plan also would cut $175 million in annual federal subsidies to support commercial air service at remote airports via the Essential Air Service program
At least one Washington-area airport, Hagerstown Regional Airport in Western Maryland, could be affected by the proposed cuts. The grant program, which started 40 years ago, was intended to be temporary, according to the budget plan.
Many of the flights aren’t full and require high per-passenger subsidies, the administration said. The budget proposes a “wholesale redesign of the program” to eliminate discretionary funding and focus remaining money “on those remote communities in most need of support.”
The new Transportation Aviation Assistance to Remote Areas (TAARA) program would be funded by the mandatory overflight fees that currently support a portion of the EAS program, according to the Department of Transportation.
“The TAARA program will continue the original intent of the EAS program by focusing on the transportation assistance for the neediest communities,” the Transportation Department said.
Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) said the proposed transportation cuts don’t make sense for an administration that has talked so much about the need for infrastructure investments.
“What we’re seeing,” Delaney said in a statement, “is the inherent dissonance that is generated by the president campaigning like a New Deal Democrat on infrastructure and then governing like a tea partyer.”
Michael Laris contributed to this report.