Trump Administration Guts Transit Funding. That’s Bad for Cities and the Planet

There is more than transportation funding at stake in the rehaul of the federal grant program that gave Dallas the Oak Cliff Streetcar

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $900 million funding package for transportation infrastructure projects. That should be good news. We all know the sorry state of America’s infrastructure, and there is a great need to invest in more sustainable mobility options throughout the country. This latest program funding comes from the BUILD grant program, which is the new name of the Obama-era TIGER grant program that was created in the wake of the 2008 recession and helped fund projects like the Oak Cliff Streetcar. But as Streetsblog points out, the character of this funding program, which was originally conceived with multi-modal transportation projects in mind, has changed dramatically.

“Nearly all of them are for highways and bridges in states that supported Trump,” Streetsblog writes. “And the latest grants continue a three-year gutting of transit funding.”

That’s bad—potentially catastrophic.

There are two troubling things about this latest round of grants. The first is that it appears that significant funding decisions around transportation infrastructure are being driven, at least in part, by political motivations. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising at this point in the Trump Administration, but it is still disheartening that the federal government would pick winners and losers of vital transportation grants based on a thinly veiled political calculus:

Only 28 percent of these federal transportation grants went to states that didn’t vote for Trump, according to Politico. Florida received the most money from the government in FY 2019 or about $62.4 million, followed by North Carolina which got $51.1 million and Maine which hauled in $44.7 million. Kentucky, which has received considerable attention from Chao’s department, received three grants worth a total of $30.4 million or 3.4 percent of the entire windfall.

The second troubling aspect of this program is the extent to which it reverses Obama-era funding for multi-modal infrastructure, including transit, bikes, and pedestrian improvements. The Trump Administration—echoing the Texas legislature in many ways—seems to believe that transportation only applies to cars and trucks.

Funding for mass transit? The Obama White House allocated 28 percent of its multi-modal grants. Trump cut that to 8.5 percent.

Rail projects? Obama was at 15.7 percent on roads. Trump is at 9.2 percent.

And bicycle or pedestrian projects? Obama pegged those at 10.5 percent. Trump cut it to zero.

This is a continuation of the Trump administration’s remaking of the Obama-era TIGER grant program, which was noted for its experimental approach of boosting multi-modal transit projects. In addition to the Dallas streetcar, TIGER grants funded freight rail projects, bus rapid transit projects, bicycle and pedestrian projects, and other streetcar lines around the country. As CityLab points out, what is frustrating about the new direction of the program is its willful dismissal of anything that isn’t roads and bridges:

According to Eno’s analysis, provided to CityLab via email, the past three years of discretionary grants have funded the construction of more roads and bridges while reducing commitments to mass transit, rail, and bike/pedestrian infrastructure.

What makes the pattern particularly frustrating to transit advocates is that TIGER was a small program, by infrastructure-spending standards, but its modest grants gave a big boost to oddball projects that didn’t quite fit in the standard funding formulas.

You might be inclined dismiss this shift as politics as usual. In our current political environment, it seems to follow that if the Obama administration did something one way, the Trump administration will do the exact opposite–and vice versa. But this brand of pendulum politics simply doesn’t make sense when it comes to issues like funding transportation infrastructure. In fact, what troubles me about this program is less the specific projects it funds or doesn’t fund, and more the broader ideological bias or blindness it represents.

We write a lot in this space about roads and transit, urbanization and sprawl. There are many ways to argue–from both a liberal and conservative perspective–for the benefits of making Dallas a denser, more walkable urban environment. You can brief yourself with some of the core ideas here. But this kind of broad policy shift away from funding things like mass transit and bicycle and pedestrian mobility reflects a deeper, more ideologically willfulness that is disconcerting. It reflects small-minded, small-stakes, short-range motivations at a time when our most pressing challenges are as high-stakes and long-range as it gets.

Unless your brain has been clouded by the tremendous amount of malicious misinformation out there that seeks to undermine the vast scientific contention that the climate has been disrupted by human-generated carbon emissions with disastrous effects for the future, then you are likely concerned that the many fires, floods, and environmental catastrophes that have become regular news are making the Earth increasingly uninhabitable. The normal reaction to such traumatic events would be to wonder what we can do to stop or reverse any behavior that contributed to an impending climate disaster. There is a lot of talk about climate change these days, and many voices seeking to sound the alarm on its escalating effects. Yet we rarely talk about exactly what kinds of policies it will take to reduce carbon emissions.

A group called Energy Innovation recently attempted to do just that. They created a model to analyze the kinds of policy changes it would require across all sectors of the economy to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050. The good news is that they found such a reduction is possible. The bad news is that it will take the kind of focused, large-scale mobilization that seems very unlikely in our current political moment. Energy Innovation created an Energy Policy Simulator that allows you to play with policies and visualize exactly how various initiatives will impact overall carbon emissions. It’s a fascinating, if complicated, tool, but thankfully the analysts at Energy Innovation did a lot of the heavy lifting for us.

In an article in Forbes, the Energy Innovation analysts outline the transportation policies it would require to achieve the carbon emission goals set by the Paris Agreement. In brief, they advocate for a swifter transition toward more walking, biking, and public transit; zoning for more density and more infill development; funding for public transit and congestion pricing to reduce cars in urban centers; setting maximums on off-street parking spaces and funding more intercity rail service; promoting a transition toward electric and hydrogen-powered cars; and increase fuel economy and emissions standards. In other words, it is a platform that rings familiar with urban advocates.

Conversations about urbanism can often get lost in economic, social, and cultural rationales for promoting stronger and more vibrant cities. It is easy to look at the work being done to create more walkable urban cities and see it motivated merely by market, aesthetic, or lifestyle choices—an end to be pursued because of a value premium on real estate investment or urban neighborhoods’ perceived impact on quality of life.

But promoting these kinds of urban policies goes beyond such considerations. If we are going to avoid the existential threat posed by global climate change, shifting the way we organize and move around our urban environments is essential component of the overall strategy. How key? The Energy Innovation analysis says that implementing these kinds of transportation policies could reduce upwards of 27 percent of all U.S. GHG emissions—nearly a third of the problem.

That’s why this latest $900 million in grants is so maddening. It isn’t simply bad policy, it is indicative of an ideological impasse and a vindictive disposition toward policy making. It is more evidence that what ails our current moment is not simply political division but the politicization of everything, including facts and science. Funding smart, multi-modal transportation is apolitical. It is efficient and sustainable. It is conservative and progressive. And yet, here we are, at an endless impasse and incapable of setting in motion a plan that will help us survive the next century.


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