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Trump's Transit Cuts: A Good Idea That Probably Won't Get Anywhere

Members of both parties will fight tooth and nail to preserve their transportation pork.

Federally subsidized transit ridersAlex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/NewscomThe Trump administration released its 2019 budget proposal yesterday. Buried between all the funding increases the White House wants for border security and the military, you'll find some calls for cutting wasteful transportation spending. Those cuts are good ideas, and they probably won't get anywhere.

The budget proposes a $15.6 billion discretionary budget for the Department of Transportation, a 20 percent reduction from 2017 levels. The cuts would eliminate the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, wind down the Capital Investment Grant program, and slash subsidies to long-distance Amtrak routes. The administration estimates these cuts will add up to $68.5 billion over ten years.

"What he [Trump] is trying to do is have the federal government fund federally relevant transportation projects," says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy expert at the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website).

That all sounds well and good. It also sounds depressingly familiar. The administration called for killing those same programs in both its 2017 and 2018 budget proposals. The cuts didn't materialize then, and they aren't likely to appear now.

"The Trump administration knows they are not going to happen," Feigenbaum says. "Congress is going to take a look at this, especially the Senate, and say, 'Get real.'"

Already the proposed cuts are provoking fierce opposition from Democratic legislators whose mass-transit dreams depend on federal funding.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) was fairly typical, calling the budget "embarrassingly small"—even when paired with the administration's separate infrastructure proposal.

A similar line is being coming from local transit agencies themselves, plenty of whom rely on federal dollars for projects they already have in the works.

Hear Peter Rogoff—CEO of Seattle-area Sound Transit system—tells the Seattle Times "there seems to be something about delivering people in trains and buses that is very hard for this administration to support."

Sound Transit is just beginning to break ground on a $54 billion light rail and transit expansion that voters approved with the assumption that the feds would front at least $7 billion of the costs.

Also endangered is a more modest $2.47 billion light rail project in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. GoTriangle—the transit agency responsible for the project—is counting on $1.2 billion in federal grants for their light rail line, all of which would be axed by Trump's 2019 budget.

"The fact of the matter is this, we cannot complete the project without a full funding grant agreement from the federal government," GoTriangle government affairs manager Matthew Clark warned Orange County Commissioners last week.

If recent history is any guide, these transit agencies have little to worry about.

Though still a minority, Democrats—particularly in the Senate—have a remarkable amount of leverage they can bring to bear to preserve these grants. Already, senators from New York and New Jersey are holding up important Department of Transportation nominees because of the Trump administration's January decision to not fund the $13 billion Gateway rail project connecting the two states.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) used a similar tactic last year to secure funding for California's disastrous high-speed rail project. And some Republicans have kept up a quiet pressure to maintain the same programs beloved by urban Democrats.

"A number of suburban Republicans like transit because it brings something to their district," says Feigenbaum. The same can be said for Amtrak. "Amtrak travels through some 46 states. If you are senator, you don't want your line to be cut because everyone else is getting it."

And so Sen. Mike Rounds (R–S.D.)—a member of the Senate's Environmental and Public Works Committee, which deals with infrastructure spending—has publicly pressed Sec. of Transportation Elaine Chao on preserving the TIGER program. Fellow committee members Jodi Ernst (R-Iowa.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) have likewise pushed for more direct federal spending on infrastructure.

If fiscal sanity prevails, they won't succeed this time. But this is Washington, the city where fiscal sanity goes to die.

Photo Credit: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  • Citizen X - #6||

    No explanation is forthcoming for that picture, huh.

  • timbo||

    I thought perhaps she is a roller derby gal. The other people are just warm?

  • Hugh Akston||

    I just assume that's what trains look like in NYC.

  • Rhywun||

    Looks like one of those yearly pantsless "events" that are supposed to be "fun". And going by the file name I'm going to guess Portland, Ore.

  • timbo||

    Why cant protesting pussies be good looking?

  • ||

    And going by the file name I'm going to guess Portland, Ore.

    Heh, Portland above ground indistinguishable from NYC underground.

    Ban soda harder!

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Riding the subway without pants in an annual tradition in New York City.

  • sarcasmic||

  • sarcasmic||

  • Rhywun||

    Stupid question... why is any of this a federal matter? And that goes for roadz too. Moobs and co. ought to be questioning the president why their states' residents have to launder their tax payments through the feds in order to fund local projects.

  • sarcasmic||

    Blackmail. The feds attach conditions to the dollars in order to force the states to enact legislation that the federal government lacks the constitutional authority to do themselves. Drinking age and speed limits off the top of my head.

  • timbo||

    And that every Mayor in history loves getting the fed dollars so they can say they expanded empty bus routes to the burbs.

    Now they are all getting electric buses that no one will ride. I think they cost about $700,000 each.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    In my county, they added free wifi in 2017. A scheme to lure more millennials to ride the bus aimlessly to watch videos and such since they reach their bandwith cap early each month. Because taxpayers need to subsidize you getting to work and keeping up with the latest crap on social media.

  • Hunthjof||

    Ahh see though Timbo once they expand that service it is a two fer for the politicians. They get more Union jobs and they now can justify taxing us in the burbs to fund the system that is mostly used in the downtown.

  • shawn_dude||

    The federal government is often called on to build large, complex projects, like the Moon landing, HIV research, etc. Way back in time, creating a system of highways that linked all the states in order to improve interstate trade was a massive project. (Plus, there's the post-Depression projects designed to restart the economy.) There were good reasons for this.

    To your larger point, though, this may no longer be something the Feds should deal with. If so, send the taxes back to the states and let them worry about it.

    (I'll bet you lunch, if that ever happened, I-15 between Vegas and LA would receive no new improvements on the California side. That's a one-way cash pipe draining LA and keeping Vegas covered in glitz.)

  • vek||

    I more or less agree with you for once!

  • Tionico||

    Correct, mostly. I can see the Interstate highway system being called, legitimately, "post roads" and thus legit. They WERE designed and built for ease of moving military equipment rapidly and easily, so some stretch could call it national defense. But busses, trolleys, trains, etc? NO WAY. Nor small connector freeways but maybe loop/bypass roads?

    My small city has a useless bus system, most time other than commute time, no more then half a dozen, and often two, yes, TWO ONLY, ride the thing. Of course it HAS to make most of its stops IN THE TRAFFIC LANE so no one can pass. They are generally despised. Stats reveal rider fees account for only 15% of total cost of the service. Recently bought about fife hybrid busses, at about half $M each, then they run those on the long distance FREEWAY run, the least efficient service for them. They come nowhere near where I live, so I can't use them., It literally is faster for me to walk where I need to be. I know lots of FedBux pour into their leaky coffers.

  • shawn_dude||

    Bottom line for me:

    If the federal government cuts spending and sends it back to the states, that's fine, but the government needs to send the money saved back to the states as well. If Texas has to fund it, then Texas tax payers should get that money back in their paycheck and let their state decide to either pull it into the state coffers for funding the cut programs or not.

    Sending the responsibility back to the states while holding onto the cash is wrong.

  • sarcasmic||

    16th amendment fixed that.

  • shawn_dude||

    I didn't say it wasn't legal, I said it was wrong.

    If the Feds are going to divest of everything they have traditionally done but don't want to any more, they need to send the cash back to the level of government they are dumping this on so it can be funded there.

  • creech||

    Didn't they just do something like this? Surely you remember the massive tax cuts that left so many dead in our streets? Remember how it benefited the rich and that most of the rich live in NY, Cal. and other urban areas that "need" mass transit? So the fed taxes have flowed back to the Wall Street and Hollywood crowds - do the states have the guts to raise taxes for these "all important" rail and transit needs?

  • vek||

    Well, if they ever did stop doing enough of those things at once, and balanced the budget they could. They're still so far in the red that the money needs to help pay for the crap ton of stuff they're still doing.

    But yeah, the recent tax cut would in fact leave enough extra in most pockets that states/counties/cities could raise taxes a bit to cover things that actually need doing. This is how it should be. We can't expect it all to change overnight, but slow and steady in that direction over a period of time could get it done.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    there seems to be something about delivering people in trains and buses that is very hard for this administration to support.

    Maybe that's because trains and buses do a shitty job of it.

  • Tionico||

    and VERY costly while they're making their laughably feeble attempts.

  • Sevo||

    "Trump infrastructure plan fails to impress Bay Area officials"
    [...]
    "It's an incredible disappointment, woefully inadequate," said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's transportation planning and financing agency. "It's a pittance."
    https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/
    article/Trump-infrastructure-plan-fails-
    to-impress-Bay-12608516.php?cmpid
    =gsa-sfgate-result

    These are people who have spent the last year screaming at the top of their lungs that Trump is Satan incarnate, swearing blood-oaths to "resist' (whatever that's supposed to mean), and now they are disappointed Trump didn't give them everything they wanted.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Elections have consequences"

    Who knew?

  • lap83||

    knit hats but no pants, f'ing hipsters...

  • mpercy||

    I'm still not sure why local mass transit is a federal expenditure item at all. Interstate AMTRAK, got an argument there. BART? BART doesn't cross state lines. Let San Franciscans pay for their own light rail wet dreams.

  • Tionico||

    I'd like to see some hard numbers on the ACTUAL cost, all in, for the "service" FedGov render in collecting, managing, deciding where it should go, then distributing all the FedBux involved in transit projects across the nation. I'll lay high stakes at long odds that figure is well over 25% of what is distrubuted. Just think..... if that money were simply left in the hands of the general public from whom it is taken at gunpoint, let US decide where it should go... through our own local governments. The ones WE put in place, and are sure NOT to return to the slop trough when they mess up.
    Let private enterprise put together the services they think the public will want and use... and pay for. I did not buy a Tesla, so FedGv do not subsidise MY daily transportation.

    Maybe such a change will lead to places of emplyment locating closer to where their putative employees live, rather than an hour each way distant. I've had the drive to "the big city", which took 65 minutes 15 years ago, take up to three hours each way...... and that's without a trainwreck. My van gets ZERO mpg sitting in freeway parking lot mode.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Theoretically, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey could take charge of building the tunnel. Funds are the only holdup. Raising ticket prices on trains going across the Hudson River would provide those funds.

  • vek||

    Fee for service... Can't have that! If people actually pay for the things they use it would be utter madness!!!

  • Hunthjof||

    I want to know the average income of those riders.

  • vek||

    Where I live in Seattle for any toll roads, or especially buses, it is a legit mix of broke low wage people... And guys who make 200 grand a year at Amazon. Just like I would assume it is in NYC, except it'd be 500K a year Wall Street guys. It's fucking ridiculous. Let the market (even if it's a bullshit government operated business) show its true costs, and if people are willing to pay it, fine. If not, then adjust it until it is solvent. Then nobody is getting fleeced, and people are getting what they pay for and like to use.

  • Hunthjof||

    The game they were playing is that this was gonna be a loan. Which I have little faith they would pay back. They would simply drag their feet until a friendly administration forgave the loan.

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