Transit projects slowly leaving the station

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A Route 603 bus parked in Ogden, UtahRoute 603 runs between Ogden Union Station and Weber State University in Utah which will eventually be served by a BRT route funded in part through a federal grant. 

After the Trump administration took office, long-planned transit projects applying for federal grants began to run into administrative roadblocks, unexplained delays, and other difficulties that put the future of these projects at risk. In response, Transportation for America launched Stuck in the Station to call attention to these inexcusable delays and slowly USDOT began to respond to the pressure. Now, in light of that progress, our focus will be on policy solutions—changing the law—to make transit easier to build in America.

Nearly two years ago—in August of 2018—Transportation for America started ringing alarm bells. Under the Trump administration, “the pipeline of new transit projects has effectively ground to a halt,” we wrote at the time when we released our Stuck in the Station tool to track the administration’s (lack of) action on transit grants. Seventeen transit projects in 14 communities were waiting for funding; they’d followed all the rules over multiple years to get to the point where a federal grant was finally in sight, “and yet still the administration does nothing.” 

As we directed the public’s attention to the unexplained hold ups at USDOT, media outlets started writing about it. Members of Congress started asking questions and holding hearings. The funding delays were the talk of transit conferences where administration officials were speaking. And slowly, our work to hold the administration accountable began to show results. Today the situation is markedly better. Twenty transit projects have been awarded funding and moved forward in the last two years.

That’s not to say everything is perfect—public transparency at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has plummeted. The FTA is still failing to release project rankings (a key component in eligibility for a grant) and their annual reports continue to include less information than under past administrations. But the situation has changed over the last couple years and there are other ways that we can continue to hold the administration accountable and help transit projects get built: policy reform.

Policy is our bread and butter

Right now, Congress is writing legislation that will govern all of federal surface transportation policy for the next five years, including the Capital Investment Grants program. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has devastated local transit budgets, putting transit projects in line for federal grants at risk of ever coming to fruition because of financing, not administrative obstruction. Both of these offer opportunities for us to improve the program by changing the law—to streamline it, to reorient the priorities, to increase transparency, and to make it easier to build transit in America.

And that’s already bearing fruit. The long-term policy proposal from the U.S. House—the INVEST in America Act—would change policy to delay the repayment of local funding matches and authorizes the federal government to cover more of a project’s total cost.

As our focus shifts more to policy reform, it’s our hope that Stuck in the Station will become wildly out of date as new transit projects are funded and the pile of cash for new projects that FTA is sitting on continues to dwindle. We’ll still be keeping an eye on this administration’s actions and be ready to ring the alarm again if fishy business starts anew. But until then it looks like transit projects are slowly leaving the station. All aboard!

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