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Congrats USDOT, for a job poorly done

Congress required USDOT to spend its 2018 transit funds by the end of this year, and USDOT was poised to fail. But at the last minute, Congress bailed them out by easing the requirement. As the deadline approaches, USDOT is still sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in grants that it refuses to award, unnecessarily delaying critical new transit projects.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is approaching an important deadline. After the agency proved that it couldn’t be trusted to execute transit grants in good faith, Congress imposed a December 31, 2019 deadline for “obligating,” or awarding, 85 percent of the $2.6 billion dedicated to the Capital Investment Grant program in 2018. That was 22 months ago. With only a couple weeks left in the year, USDOT has failed to hit that mark, but earlier this year, Congress blinked and bailed USDOT out by lowering the bar for them.

When initially passed last year, the deadline was an important, bipartisan signal that Congress was unhappy about USDOT ignoring the law, flouting congressional intent, and purposefully sabotaging transit expansion.

But Congress watered down this requirement recently to say USDOT only has to “allocate” funding—a relatively toothless standard. Allocation is not the same thing as obligation and just means that USDOT has made room in a spreadsheet for eventually spending the money on a particular project. It results in zero dollars actually going to build or improve new transit without additional approvals and action by USDOT.

In total, USDOT has failed to obligate more than $2.2 billion in funding for new transit projects since the Trump administration took office.

When it comes to FY18 dollars, though Congress threw them a lifeline, USDOT is still sitting on more than $668 million that it hasn’t obligated to transit projects. One of those allocations was made as far back as November 2018. These perplexing and avoidable federal delays seriously disrupt local project timelines and budgets.

As of publication, USDOT has only awarded (i.e. obligated) about 77 percent of the 2018 dollars Congress dedicated to transit grants that could be used to get new transit projects started across the country. But USDOT has “allocated” 98 percent of the 2018 grant funding available. That’s small consolation to the communities that have been waiting for up to nine months since they received an allocation on a USDOT spreadsheet for their shovel-ready transit projects to receive funding they can actually use.

Given the new standard, we should congratulate USDOT. They have successfully ignored Congress in order to push an anti-transit agenda that is broadly opposed on Capitol Hill and in the public—and they are going to get away with it. The bar has been lowered so much that USDOT can step over it without actually doing its job. Perhaps in the new year, the U.S. Department of Transportation will finally find its sense of purpose and start funding these critical transportation projects, and Congress will be able to find a way to hold USDOT’s feet to the fire. USDOT has already allocated the funding; it’s time to start spending it.

For more information about USDOT’s transit funding delays and how we got here, take a look back through our Stuck in the Station blog. and explore the Stuck in the Station resource.