The news out of Washington Thursday morning was terrible for urbanists and transit advocates. President Trump’s 2018 budget request intends to pay for his priorities – increased defense spending, border wall construction, etc – partially on the backs of cities. Worse than percentage cuts to grant formulas, Trump’s budget goes further to propose wholesale federal disinvestment from transit projects. The proposed 13% cut to DOT’s discretionary budget represents a paltry $2.4B – or approximately 0.06% of a roughly $4T total – but it falls almost entirely upon cuts to Amtrak, and elimination of TIGER grants, Essential Air Service subsidies, and worst of all, New Starts and Small Starts grants for large transit projects:
…limits funding for the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program (New Starts) to projects with existing full funding grant agreements (FFGA) only. Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.
This is a very, very big deal for Puget Sound, and especially for Sound Transit. ST2 projects such as Lynnwood and Federal Way may seem secure, but they are both at the penultimate step to construction, just short of a signed FFGA and technically still in Project Development. After years of design, environmental work, planning, and taxes paid by all of us, Trump’s proposed budget could easily pull the rug out from both the Lynnwood and Federal Way extensions. Since ST3 extensions are obviously physically dependent on ST2 completion, pulling these grants also threatens the entirety of Snohomish and Pierce County’s ST3 Link projects. The expected loss would be $1.17 billion for Lynnwood and $500 million for Federal Way, nearly half the funding for those projects. (East Link, funded by taxes, bonds, and a low-interest TIFIA loan, is not threatened at this time.)
Sound Transit’s taxing authority and its adopted System Plan would remain, of course, and the ST Board would follow established procedure for delaying or cutting projects. From the ST3 financial plan:
For those cases in which a subarea’s actual and projected expenditures exceed its actual and projected revenues and funding sources by five percent or greater, and/or where unforeseen circumstances occur that would result in an inability to substantially complete projects within such subarea’s plan, the Board must take one or more of the following actions:
• Correct the shortfall through use of such subarea’s uncommitted funds and/or bond capacity available to the subarea
• Scale back the subarea plan or projects within the plan to match a revised budget
• Extend the time period of completion of the subarea plan
• Seek legislative authorization and voter approval for additional resources
It is important to remember that part of the Federal Way extension (to Star Lake/272nd) was already deferred this way when the 2009 recession dried up revenues, only to be later promised it would be next in line when revenues revived. A second deferral would be a devastating blow to ST’s perception in South King County, through no fault of its own. Other projects that are threatened include the Tacoma Link extension to TCC, Rapid Ride G, the Center City Connector streetcar, Community Transit’s SWIFT II, and Spokane’s Central City Line. Cities across the country would see their capital budgets gutted, and only Los Angeles would emerge relatively unscathed.
Simultaneously, Olympia continues its assault on Sound Transit for daring to successfully ask voters to enact the taxes Olympia itself authorized. The Motor Vehicle Excise Tax has admittedly led to sticker shock among mostly high-value car owners, but it is also the most progressive of the three sources authorized for ST3. The faux populism of an urban Manhattan developer-cum-President is bad enough, but Olympia Republicans – and crucially, a handful of Democratic allies – are throwing a one-two populist punch with the drive for a directly-elected board.
So 5 months after a historic yes vote on ST3, the agency is facing a three-pronged attack. First, the gutting of federal funding would slow timelines, cancel projects, and/or increase borrowing costs for Sound Transit. Second, Olympia’s proposals to modify the MVET evaluation method would reduce revenue significantly. Third, if Olympia succeeds in creating a directly elected Sound Transit Board, we will lose subject expertise in the middle of a huge capital program and create gerrymandered districts that devalue urban votes.
The result of all this would be a disaster: more adversial transit politics, higher costs, slower timelines, and increased urban-suburban divides. It would be a functional chokehold on Seattle, far and away the region’s primary job center. It would be a double injustice to the suburban poor, pushed out of the city by our unwillingness to build enough housing and stuck in traffic through our inability to build transit. It would be economic sabotage at both the federal and state level.
It would also be a good time to let your federal delegation know how much you value transit funding, including Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Suzan DelBene, Rick Larsen, Derek Kilmer, Pramila Jayapal, Dave Reichert(!), Adam Smith, and Denny Heck.