Friday, March 17, 2017

STA CEO wasn't worried about Trump slashing transit — but now the Central City Line is in peril

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2017 at 2:58 PM

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In the aftermath of the election, with Spokane voters finally approving the high-frequency electric "Central City" bus line, the Inlander asked Spokane Transit Authority CEO E. Susan
Meyer about the impact of newly elected President Donald Trump.

Since STA was anticipating the vast bulk of the Central City Line construction funding to come from the federal government's Small Starts grant, was there a possibility that the new administration could put the electric bus route in jeopardy?

"No! We don't think so. The Small Start and New Starts grants have been in place for, like, 35 to 50 years," Meyer said. "It's hard to predict. Let me say this: No new administration has ever changed the funding for Small Starts and New Start projects that have been approved."

In our conversation back in November, I noted that Trump has floated a big infrastructure package, but asked if there was a concern that he saw infrastructure as mostly about roads and bridges, not buses. Meyer wasn't worried.

"I cannot peg him that way," Meyer says. "He's a big city man. He's an urban experience guy. He knows how important transit is. If he were maybe of another ilk or from a smaller area — we'll just have to wait and see."

Now, we've waited and we've seen: Trump's budget proposal would completely eliminate both the Small Starts and the New Starts grant programs.

So if it passes — and that's a big if — the proposed Central City Line funding plan would suddenly have a gaping hole. "If $54 million dollars are not coming from the federal government, the board will have to decide if there are other options for funding the project," Meyer says.

But that potential conversation is a long way off. And in the meantime, STA is proceeding with the Central City Line grant process with the hopes that the grants program will be saved.

"There is nothing to suggest to us we should do anything but stay the course," Meyer says.

Meyer says she'll communicate with the local congressional delegation in order to stress the importance of these programs.

"[We have a] tremendous amount of community support," Meyer says. "Voters and the public have been counting on this program."

Meyer still strikes a hopeful note that Congress will maintain funding for the grant programs. She points to how Congress overwhelmingly passed the FAST Act in 2015, which reauthorized funding for transit and other transportation projects.

"The amounts of New Starts and Small Starts [grants] have gone up and down over the years," Meyer says. "[But] the programs have never been zeroed out."

Meyer says that it's not just transit hit by eliminations in the Department of Transporation's budget. The budget would also kill the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. Two of those grants have gone to help fund construction of the North Spokane Corridor.

If the president's budget passes, Meyer says that grant agreements that had already been signed would continue to be funded by the federal government. But the rest would not. While it may take a while for the next budget to get passed by Congress, Meyer says it isn't feasible that STA could get their grant in under the wire before the axe falls. STA's hope was to have funding for constructing the Central City Line in the Trump's 2019 budget.

Asked if she was surprised with Trump's budget slashing transit grants, Meyer said yes and no.

"If one has listened to the president over time, he has talked about reducing the size of government. [But] the surprising thing is that he has committed to a $1 trillion infrastructure package," Meyer says. "Lots of infrastructure projects would not be funded if [his cuts go] forward. There is a contradiction. ... [The Small Starts program] is a huge infrastructure program. Eliminating that doesn't make sense."
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