President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would deprive the Atlanta region of some $3 billion in future funding for expanding mass transit.
Some of the region’s biggest transit projects — including several future MARTA expansions, a Cobb County bus rapid transit line and expansions of the Atlanta Streetcar and Beltline — are counting on money from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts Program. The president’s proposed 2018 budget would limit funding of that program to projects that are already approved. It also would eliminate grants that have provided crucial funding for the streetcar and Beltline.
Turning such projects into reality would be far more difficult — if not impossible — without those federal dollars.
The president's proposal comes as mass transit has gained more political support in the Georgia General Assembly and while MARTA trains are packed, following the March 30 collapse of the I-85 bridge and the resulting traffic jams.
Despite a successful MARTA expansion referendum in Atlanta last year and the prospect of more state funding for mass transit, some say federal money is vital to ensuring places like Atlanta address their traffic and economic development challenges. They say the proposed budget cuts would upend a decades-old precedent of federal funding for mass transit projects across the United States.
“You look at the major infrastructure projects across the country — mass transit or highway,” MARTA CEO Keith Parker said. “The vast majority of them are funded with some local money complemented with federal dollars.”
Trump’s supporters say the president plans a dramatic expansion of federal infrastructure spending, but first wants to ensure current programs are efficient.
“He wants to make sure those dollars are used as effectively as possible,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville. “He cannot assure the American people today that they’re getting maximum efficiency. That’s why he’s pushing the pause button.”
None of the Atlanta projects that could be affected have been approved for federal funding. But when the Atlanta Regional Commission put together its long-term transportation plan last year, it was counting on FTA New Starts dollars for a slew of projects.
The New Starts program helps pay for new “fixed guideway” transit projects like heavy or light rail or bus rapid transit. Among the projects ARC believed would qualify for New Starts funding:
MARTA expansions along the Clifton Corridor, I-20 and Ga. 400.
A Cobb bus rapid transit line to the MARTA Arts Center station.
A high-capacity transit line connecting MARTA's East Point station to Jonesboro and Lovejoy in Clayton County.
Five Atlanta Streetcar expansions, including Beltline extensions from Montgomery Ferry Road to Glenwood Avenue and from Midtown corridor to the MARTA south rail line
ARC is counting on New Starts money for about 45 percent of the cost of each project, or $3 billion total.
The agency expects two of the projects — a MARTA expansion from East Point to Jonesboro and an Atlanta Streetcar extension from Jackson Street to the Beltline at Irwin Street — to be started sometime between 2022 and 2030. The remainder are not scheduled until 2031-40.
Transit supporters say the New Starts money will be vital to their completion.
“It would be really devastating (to lose the money),” said Michael Sullivan, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Georgia. “The federal government has been a partner in the development of transit for generations.”
The Trump administration is rethinking that arrangement. Its proposed budget, released in March, would limit FTA New Starts funding to projects with existing agreements for full funding. None of the Georgia projects have such agreements.
“Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these local projects,” the document says.
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
The budget also would eliminate funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recover (TIGER) grant program. That program provided $18 million for the Beltline and $47.6 million for the streetcar.
Altogether, Trump’s 2018 budget would cut $2.4 billion — or 13 percent — from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the president’s budget “severely underfunds federal programs that put Americans to work to improve our nation’s highways and transit systems, which was a center point of the Trump campaign.”
“It’s time for President Trump to put his money where his mouth is and deliver on his promise to improve our nation’s infrastructure,” Johnson said.
Woodall, who serves on the same committee, said that’s exactly what Trump plans to do. He noted the president has proposed boosting federal spending on infrastructure by $1 trillion over 10 years, though the proposal is not included in his 2018 budget.
Woodall believes Georgia will fare well under Trump's infrastructure proposal because the state has shown it's willing to spend its own money to improve transportation. In 2015, state lawmakers approved a plan to raise nearly $1 billion annually to fix roads and bridges, and last year Atlanta voters approved sales taxes for a MARTA expansion and other transportation improvements.
“We’re not sitting around waiting for someone to write the check for our projects,” Woodall said. “We’re raising money.”
A spokesperson for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed expressed similar confidence.
“There is always uncertainty about budget priorities with the start of any new administration or new Congress, and 2016 is no different,” the spokesperson said. “But the city of Atlanta and our partners at MARTA are in a strong position to compete for any federal or state transportation funding opportunities, through the leadership of Mayor Kasim Reed.”
Ultimately, Congress — not the president — will create a 2018 budget. And it remains to be seen whether any of the proposed cuts come to pass.
“I’m not aware of a budget that has been submitted by a president that hasn’t changed dramatically between being introduced and being signed into law,” Sullivan said.