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T4America joins a parade of letters to USDOT urging them to do their job and get transit projects moving

Following a parade of official letters from elected representatives, T4America sent a letter urging USDOT to do the job required of them by law and award funds to expeditiously advance transit projects, communicate more clearly with local communities about the status of their projects, and recognize that a bipartisan majority in Congress has twice rejected their wishes to eliminate the transit capital construction program. (Updated below.)

As chronicled in our Stuck in the Station resource, the Trump administration’s USDOT has stated their clear preference to wind down the federal program that pairs federal grants with state/local dollars to invest in much-needed public transportation projects in cities of nearly all size across the country.

USDOT has (begrudgingly) continued to award dollars mostly to smaller transit projects that receive their funding all at once in one single year—$50 million here, $50 million there—while largely neglecting to advance and sign any funding agreements for multi-year transit projects with higher price tags that require them to provide a larger amount of funding over multiple years. To date, they’ve awarded just $532 million of the $2.3 billion that Congress has given them since May 2017, a fact that’s impossible to reconcile with President Trump and Secretary Chao’s complaints about the long, arduous, red-tape-filled road to getting transportation projects approved and their promises to expedite that process.

(Update: 9/24/2018: Streetsblog LA reported last week that Los Angeles received what’s known as a Letter of No Prejudice from USDOT to proceed on their Purple Line subway extension. While this is indeed a “big deal,” as described by Metro CEO Phil Washington, it does not provide funding from FTA nor does it guarantee that Metro will receive funding in the future. We’ll have more on what this means later this week.)

Last week, we sent a letter to the Federal Transit Administration urging them to get these projects moving and also bring a degree of clarity and transparency that’s been sorely lacking:

To date, the administration has failed to obligate the overwhelming majority of funding appropriated since FY17. This undermines the administration’s stated goal of cutting red tape and building infrastructure. We therefore urge you to expeditiously advance projects, working cooperatively with project sponsors.

We further suggest that you review your method of communicating the status of projects by providing regular, detailed updates to public and project sponsors. This should include specific information about what remains to advance a project, an expected timeline, and what fiscal year funding will be used for a project.

Congress has rejected the administration’s plan to end the CIG program and, instead, provided the FTA with about $2.3 billion to build new and expand existing transit. Based on the limited information publicly available from your agency, there are 16 projects in 13 communities expecting this funding. While some grants have been awarded, USDOT appears to be delaying many projects while not providing project sponsors with the information they need to address the issues USDOT cites as cause for delay. Congress has been clear: USDOT’s mission is to advance projects through the pipeline and award grants.

Read our full letter here (pdf).

We are not the only ones who have been writing letters to USDOT, however.

With several transit projects already in the pipeline (and more on the way thanks to several recent ballot measures), Washington State’s two Senators and scores of representatives sent a letter to Secretary Chao back in February. In this letter, they outlined the recent timeline for three specific transit projects, pointing to months where projects sponsors were left waiting with no communication or action from FTA, noting that this “emerging pattern of missed execution dates, delays, and seemingly deliberate slowdowns in executing CIG grant agreements that have received Congressional appropriations is extremely concerning.”

“In addition, we note it is in direct contradiction to your commitment to distribute the funding Congress provides the Department,” they continued.

A couple months later, in April 2018, Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) sent a letter to Secretary Chao with a similar thrust. “Congress has now twice rejected proposals from the Trump Administration to terminate the Capital Investment Grant program and instead has strongly reaffirmed its bipartisan commitment to not only continuing, but actually expanding, the program,” the letter states.

For an administration that wants states and localities to pick up a greater share of the funding burden for infrastructure, Senator Feinstein notes that these transit projects should be a pretty attractive deal.

The federal commitment of funding for these [transit] projects averages only 45 percent of the total costs, far less than the federal share of up to 80 percent on comparable highway projects. These projects deserve the fair and timely administration they are owed by a program that has been duly authorized and appropriated.

Jane Williams, the acting administrator of FTA, responded via a letter to all of Congress this summer, in which she seemed to assert that FTA has a lot more latitude to choose projects than the law would suggest (pdf):

The FTA bases its discretionary funding allocation decisions for the CIG program on a variety of factors including the extent of the local financial commitment, project readiness, and geographic diversity. The FTA also considers the extent value capture, private contributions, and other innovative approaches to project development and delivery are used, including public-private partnerships.

Except that the transit capital program isn’t truly “discretionary,” like the TIGER (now BUILD) grant program is, as an example. And “geographic diversity” as a consideration is not actually anywhere in the current law. Rep. Peter DeFazio and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, two members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, addressed both of these issues in a reply to the acting administrator (pdf):

As you know, the [transit capital grant] program’s statutory language is not like a typical discretionary grant program like INFRA, bus, or ferry discretionary grants. It is a pipeline program where eligible projects that meet the statutory criteria under section 5309 are funding subject only to continued appropriations. …FTA’s letter also attempts to add a new criterion to the [transit capital] program, referred to as geographic diversity. We are concerned that FTA is adding another layer of bureaucracy to discourage multiple transit projects from entering the pipeline from within the same growing urban area or state.

What they’re saying is that if transit projects are entered into the pipeline and meet the criteria in the law and are scored in a satisfactory manner (FTA does have some latitude here), the law dictates that those projects should be approved and funded. Put another way, FTA doesn’t actually get to “choose” which transit projects they want to fund—it is not a truly competitive program.

Rep. DeFazio and Del. Holmes Norton also note the massive cognitive dissonance between an administration that has publicly and loudly committed itself to cutting red tape, and USDOT’s plan to add a whole lot more red tape to a process that’s already far more complicated than it should be.

When you testified before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, you spoke of an intent to ‘streamline permitting to speed up project delivery and reduce unnecessary and overly burdensome regulations.’ Given this testimony, we are confused as to why USDOT appears to be intent on creating new regulatory burdens designed to thwart transit infrastructure investment, in overt disregard of clear Congressional intent.

The message that USDOT is receiving is crystal clear. As our letter says, “we intend to continue to draw attention to these delays until these funds are obligated. Local communities have waited long enough.”