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Public transit officials are ‘struggling to understand’ Trump’s proposed cuts

President Trump’s budget would cut as much as $51.7 billion from public transit-oriented federal grant programs, though Congress is likely to take a significantly more tempered approach. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Senior executives from transit agencies around the country said Monday they are perplexed by President Trump’s proposed cuts to federal grants aimed at funding transportation infrastructure and public transit projects — especially in light of his pledges to improve the quality of the nation’s rail systems.

Speaking at a news conference held by the American Public Transportation Association, Peter Rogoff, chief executive officer of Sound Transit in Seattle, said he is “struggling to understand” the disparity in the level of support given to public transit projects versus a federal rural roads investment program.

Trump’s budget — which will almost certainly be altered by Congress — proposes cuts as high as nearly $52 billion to transit-oriented grant programs like Capital Investment Grants and the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, as well as funding for Amtrak and Washington’s Metro system.

Trump’s proposed budget would dramatically increase funding into rural infrastructure projects.

“I have a hard time understanding how roads that might serve 3,000 or 300 or 30 residents — all worthy recipients — are not considered local projects, and are considered worthy of federal funds, while these major transit expansions at international economic hubs are not,” said Rogoff, who previously served as the head of the Federal Transit Administration under President Barack Obama.

Other transit executives who have gathered in D.C. this week for APTA’s annual legislative conference expressed similar frustrations with Trump’s approach to public transit funding.

“I think we’re all losing momentum, as projects sit in line, literally,” said Carm Basile, chief executive officer at the Capital District Transportation Authority in Albany, N.Y.

“There’s an expectation of us in our communities, once projects are announced and once you start to build them, that you’re going to complete them,” Basile said. “So I think we’re at a crossroads here, and as funding becomes in jeopardy, we’ve got a whole lot of explaining to do back in our communities when we’ve said that these projects are going to happen.”

The Trump administration’s budget espouses the idea that states and cities should bear more of the burden of financing their own public transit projects — and that, in many cases, it’s not appropriate for the federal government to pay for more than 20 percent of the final cost of a bus or rail infrastructure project.

APTA President Paul Skoutelas said that municipalities have worked hard in recent years to increase the portion of transit projects financed by state or municipal dollars, or by the private sector. But limiting the federal government’s contributions to 20 percent, he said, would be “debilitating” for many projects already in the works, he said.

“Local communities have stepped up, and are stepping up, to increase their local share. But the reality of it is … the locals really are paying more than their fair share at this point,” Skoutelas said.

“We’re looking for parity here, and an acknowledgment that the locals have stepped up,” he continued. “That should not be a sign that the federal government should withdraw its support and its resources. It should be a sign that it should step up, too.”