Senate Transportation Funding Bill Would Cut Small Project Transit Grants

In this Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 photo, construction workers make progress on the SunRail station as an Amtrak train stops at the next door Amtrak station to pick up passengers in Winter Park, Fla.

In this Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 photo, construction workers make progress on the SunRail station as an Amtrak train stops at the next door Amtrak station to pick up passengers in Winter Park, Fla. AP Photo/John Raoux

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Legislation advanced by the Senate Appropriations Committee would cut funding for the Small Starts grants program from $526 million to $78 million.

A transportation funding bill passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week slashes the amount of money allotted for small public transit projects, worrying advocates that local projects in the pipeline could be delayed.

The spending legislation for the transportation agencies, along with the Housing and Urban Development Department, reduces funding for capital investment grants, including the Small Starts grants that are used to finance local public transit projects that cost under $300 million. The appropriations legislation provides $78 million for the Small Starts program, down from $526 million in fiscal 2019.

 “We are concerned they are looking to take that much out of the program,” said Scott Goldstein, policy director for Transportation for America. “We think it sends a signal to the broader community of cities and regions interested in public transit that Congress may not be there if you do your part.”

The House version of the appropriations legislation would provide $2.3 billion for capital investment grants, including $430 million for Small Starts projects. The American Public Transportation Association praised the House appropriations bill for the amount dedicated to capital investment grants and the requirement that the Federal Transit Administration obligate 80% of the money by the end of 2021.  

The White House was critical of the amount of money dedicated to capital investment grants in the House version, however, calling it “excessive.”

It’s unclear when the full Senate will take up the appropriations legislation, but lawmakers would have to work out any differences between the two versions.

The FTA provides Small Starts grants for capital projects that cost less than $300 million total and are seeking less than $100 million in federal funding. The grants can be used to pay for new light or commuter rail systems, creation of bus rapid transit systems, or extensions to existing systems.

In fiscal 2018, the program received $408 million.

Local projects currently in the pipeline include a 13-mile stretch of bus rapid-transit service in Flagstaff, Arizona; two bus rapid transit lines in Indianapolis, Indiana; and a 5-mile commuter rail connection from the Orlando International Airport to the region’s current SunRail system.

The pool of local projects clamoring for Small Starts grants is already much larger than what can be accommodated, and cutting the amount of money for the program would likely set back the timeline for projects already approved for funding, Goldstein said.

The remainder of the appropriations bill is fairly uncontroversial, said Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation.

The transportation appropriations legislation was passed unanimously through the Senate Appropriations Committee. It provides approximately $86 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation, including $46.3 billion from the Highway Trust Fund for the Federal-aid Highways Program.

“This legislation prioritizes funding for infrastructure that will improve our nation’s transportation systems and housing programs, enhancing job creation and economic development across the country,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, of the committee’s approval of the legislation.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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