Donald Trump’s failure to repeal and replace Obamacare last week represented the first major defeat for his fledgling administration. But obviously there are still many future battles to be fought.
Among the most pressing issues is the proposed budget he released earlier this month, which calls for starving social services and the arts while jacking up the defense budget by 10 percent, funding the border wall with Mexico, and slashing taxes for the superwealthy. In addition, the budget would lay waste to key federal funding sources for public transportation infrastructure, which would have a devastating effect on Chicago-area projects.
We can’t say they didn’t warn us in last year’s Republican Party platform. “We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government,” it stated. The platform listed Amtrak, public transportation, bike-share programs, trails, and sidewalks as examples of “worthwhile enterprises [that] should be funded through other sources.”
The proposed budget wouldn’t abolish funding for the majority of pedestrian and bike projects, but it would eliminate several grant programs that have been crucial for bankrolling CTA, Metra, and Amtrak infrastructure. Local leaders say many planned improvements would be almost impossible to pay for without help from the feds, so we’re going to have to fight this anti-urban budget with everything we’ve got.
First, let’s survey the potential damage. Trump’s budget calls for eliminating the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investments Program, which includes Core Capacity grants to accommodate more ridership on “legacy” transit systems and the so-called New Starts funding for newer transit lines.
Thankfully, Chicago hustled to nail down $956 million in Core Capacity money for the first phase of the CTA’s Red and Purple Modernization Project, a crucial overhaul of these el lines north of Belmont, before Barack Obama left office. However, Trump’s budget makes this money unavailable to future RPM phases.
New Starts has previously funded overhauls of the Brown and Pink Lines, and has been used to add stations and tracks for Metra’s North Central, Southwest, and Union Pacific-West lines. The CTA is counting on this funding to help pay for the $2 billion planned Red Line extension south to 130th Street. It would also be a likely revenue stream for the proposed Ashland bus rapid transit corridor, although that project is currently back-burnered due to community opposition.
The new budget also calls for scrapping the popular Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery competitive grant program, or TIGER. The CTA has previously used TIGER money for the Green Line’s Garfield Park Conservatory station and various Blue Line work, and it’s currently bankrolling overhauls of the Garfield Green Line stop and the Red Line’s 95th Street terminal.
The Chicago Department of Transportation is also using this funding source for its portion of the CREATE program, meant to unsnarl traffic jams on area freight rail corridors. CDOT also won TIGER grants for the elegant, serpentine bicycle-pedestrian bridge that opened last fall at 35th Street and the lakefront, as well as a planned bike-ped bridge at 41st. (The latter project was recently stalled due to the state of Illinois refusing to chip in an additional $2 million after construction bids came in high, but on Monday CDOT commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld told the Chicago Tribune that the department has found “alternative sources” for that funding.)
So Trump’s plan to slay the TIGER program would impact a wide range of future local rail and bridge projects. It would also take away a major funding source for Amtrak’s long-distance routes, many of which, like the Capitol Limited, City of New Orleans, and Empire Builder, are based in Chicago.
—Active Transportation Alliance director of governmental relations Kyle Whitehead
Despite the Republicans’ argument that transit corridors should be funded strictly by city and state dollars (while failing to apply that logic to suburban highways), Chicago leaders say that approach would be disastrous for the local economy, and bad for the nation as a whole.
“Eliminating funding for transit projects, as the president’s budget proposes, would cut jobs, decrease service, make commutes longer and create significant challenges for both transit agencies across the country and residents that rely on transit to get to work or school every day,” CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman writes in an e-mail.
Metra CEO Don Orseno says that while the proposed budget doesn’t appear to affect any existing Metra projects, the railroad currently needs $12 billion over the next ten years to achieve and maintain a state of good repair on the system, and was expecting to raise about a quarter of that in the upcoming decade, mostly from federal sources. “Cutting federal capital funding is a serious and short-sighted step in the wrong direction,” he said.
“These programs have been central to our progress as a region in recent decades and we can’t afford to go in reverse,” Active Transportation Alliance director of governmental relations Kyle Whitehead wrote in a recent blog post. “We need a federal budget that maintains and grows funding for sustainable transportation options—not decimates it.”
Active Trans began mobilizing against expected cuts to sustainable transportation shortly after Trump was elected, according to Whitehead. The advocacy organization has met with congressional representatives from around the region, often accompanied by local constituents, urging the politicians to protect and grow funding for transit, walking, and biking. The group also recently launched a letter-writing campaign, asking members to contact their senators and reps and ask them to reject the proposed cuts.
The good news, according to Illinois congressman Mike Quigley—who sits on the House Appropriations Committee—is that many lawmakers have already gotten the message.
“Fortunately, an overwhelming number of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate have called the president’s budget ‘Dead on Arrival,'” Quigley said in a statement. “People across the country, regardless of party affiliation, benefit massively from federal spending on transportation and infrastructure.”
The congressman noted that Trump himself has called for $1 trillion in additional infrastructure spending to address the massive backlog of pressing transportation needs not currently being addressed.
“I agree with him that we need to invest a lot more in our infrastructure,” Quigley said. “Which is why it makes no sense to cut crucial programs like TIGER and Core Capacity.”
So the bottom line is, don’t panic, but be sure you make your voice heard on the subject.
“I don’t think this budget will pass as is, but there will undoubtedly be cuts to programs that many Americans rely on,” Quigley said. “The public should stay engaged and stay informed and keep up the historic levels of advocacy that we’ve already seen.”
If the pressure is sustained, the thinking goes, the Donald’s shameless attack on urban transportation could down in flames—just like Trumpcare did. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.
This story has been updated to include breaking news about funding for the proposed 41st Street bike-pedestrian bridge.