Photo credit: Nick Bastian

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been busy with applying for faculty jobs and finishing up my dissertation.

“Really?” you might be asking, “What’s your dissertation about?”

I’m glad you asked. It’s basically about the history of the New Starts grants program, which is the main program that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) uses to fund the construction of urban transit projects like light rail and bus rapid transit. My conclusions are very hopeful, since they highlight some of the ways in which the program has really made some great improvements over the years, and seems to have generally had a positive influence on transit practice.

So I was sad to see that (sigh) President Trump’s new budget proposes to eliminate the program altogether. The idea seems to be that the federal government should not have a role in funding urban transit. There’s certainly a valid argument for that position, but my own belief is that federal investments in transit infrastructure have been a very positive thing, and they’ve enabled a lot of great, beneficial projects that wouldn’t have otherwise been built. Over the years, these types of grants have also enabled a few projects that probably never should have been built, but things have improved significantly in that respect, and we’ve been seeing much wiser investment of federal dollars lately.

I like the TIGER grants program even better, and that’s another one that’s on the chopping block. TIGER grants are multi-modal/mode-neutral, so they can be used for transit, highways, bike facilities, or whatever. That makes them even more effective at directing investment to where it’s most needed.

One thing that’s interesting about the potential end of the New Starts program is last month’s news that the mayor of Miami-Dade County had agreed to comply with Trump’s ban on “sanctuary cities” because he was hoping to secure a federal grant to build a mass transit system connecting downtown Miami to Miami Beach and other suburbs. This would presumably have been a New Starts grant, although it could also have been a TIGER grant. So Miami’s cooperation with the Trump administration could prove to be less lucrative than the mayor had hoped.

Both programs—New Starts and TIGER grants—are most important for small and medium-sized cities, and less important for big cities (which often have the capacity to fund their own capital projects if they need to).

The last administration that hated transit grants this much was the Reagan Administration, and they were mostly unsuccessful in eliminating capital grants for transit – Congress just kept on earmarking projects in spite of what FTA had or hadn’t requested. Transportation earmarks have fallen out of favor since the Bridge to Nowhere got so much press though, so it will be interesting to see what happens here.

Other cuts identified in this latest budget proposal are subsidies for Amtrak’s long distance train service (which is rural service) and the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes rural airports.

So overall, at least for transportation spending, this budget seems to focus its cuts on programs that mostly benefit small cities and rural areas. It seems like this reflects an odd lack of attention to the interests of the rural areas and small towns that were so instrumental in electing President Trump – which I’ve written about before.