Looks like President Donald Trump is touting an "infrastructure plan" that is actually a whole lot of nothing while simultaneously undermining his rhetoric about infrastructure by proposing a budget that would slash transit funding. Imagine that!
Trump released both his infrastructure plan and proposed 2019 budget today. The infrastructure plan largely counts on local, state, and private money, while the budget cuts funding for the Department of Transportation. Taken together, the two proposals may actually represent a net loss for infrastructure.
Among the proposed budget cuts: the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program (also known as "New Starts"). That program helps fund light rail projects in Puget Sound. Most immediately: Sound Transit is counting on funds from the program to extend light rail to Lynnwood and Federal Way.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said in an interview with The Stranger that the pairing of a transit-slashing budget and an infrastructure plan is "completely inconsistent" and "perplexing, if not maddening."
"It's hard to digest how those two things align," Rogoff said.
In the budget, the Trump administration writes that it intends to "wind down" the New Starts program in order to "incentivize states and localities to raise new revenue and funding" for infrastructure projects. But local or regional agencies often already bear the brunt of transit projects. Here in Puget Sound, just 13 percent of the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 measure depends on federal funding. Everything else comes from regional taxpayers through taxes, bonds, and fares.
Sound Transit is counting on about $1.17 billion from the New Starts program to extend rail to Lynnwood, about 40 percent of that project's total cost. The agency also expects $500 million for the extension to Federal Way, less than 20 percent of that project's cost, Rogoff said.
"In the case of all of these projects, not only did the voters of the region endorse them and the voters of the region are paying the majority share for them, but they needed them yesterday," Rogoff said. "And our federal partner is again threatening to leave the building."
The budget is unlikely to survive Congress in tact. Last year, Trump proposed similar cuts, but Congress reversed them before approving the budget. Sound Transit will now be lobbying members of Congress to do the same with this budget. (Around this time last year, Sound Transit was also fighting state budget cuts via changes to car tabs. They may be having deja vu on that front too.)
Rogoff, who previously served as head of the Federal Transit Administration, said he has watched the New Starts grant program survive the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.
"What gets lost in these budget battles is that this may be one of the most rigorous, meritocratic programs in the entire federal government," Rogoff said. "You don’t get money for projects that don’t pencil out or aren’t going to have ridership or aren’t well designed...This administration is a real anomaly."