President Donald Trump's $4.4 trillion budget released this week calls for deep cuts to a grant program that is a critical lifeline for Twin Cities transit projects now in the works, including the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail lines.
Should the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) "wind down" its New Starts grant program, as Trump has suggested, close to $2 billion would not be available to help pay for the planned LRT projects or Gold Line bus-rapid transit service in the east metro.
Instead, the Trump budget encourages state and local governments to raise new revenue to complete the projects on their own even though federal grants typically pay half of their cost.
Without federal support, local transit planners have said it would be difficult for the projects to proceed. Already, $345 million in local funds have been spent on the two light-rail projects alone.
But the Metropolitan Council, which is planning and building the transit projects, characterizes Trump's budget proposal as an opening salvo, with Congress left to craft an actual spending plan.
"The president's proposal is just that — a proposal," said Met Council spokeswoman Kate Brickman. "We know there is strong, bipartisan support [in] Congress for transportation and transit investment. We are confident in the project and the continued federal investment in infrastructure."
The two light-rail lines are extensions of existing Green and Blue Line train service, while the Gold Line would be the state's first true bus-rapid transit service connecting Union Depot in St. Paul to Woodbury. The Southwest line would run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, and the Bottineau line is slated to link Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. All told, the three projects will cost $3.6 billion to build.
At the same time, the FTA recently released its annual report on funding recommendations — and the Southwest and the Bottineau light-rail projects are not among them, nor is the Gold Line.
The FTA said only projects that have won full-funding agreements from the agency are recommended for federal dollars, and those are limited to pending lines in California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Oregon, Texas and Illinois.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman said Thursday that the FTA will continue to process grant applications whether or not there's a final funding agreement in place, evaluating "each project on its merits." She noted the projects undergo a multiyear, multistep process to win grant funds.
In addition, the FTA's annual report does not recommend funding the proposed $151 million Orange Line, a bus-rapid transit project slated for Interstate 35W between Minneapolis and Burnsville. Nearly half of the line's price tag — about $74 million — was supposed to come from FTA's Small Starts program, or projects costing less than $300 million.
Brickman noted that Trump proposed cutting the New Starts program last year as well. But Congress approved a resolution to fully fund it and then appropriated $10 million to the Southwest project. With Trump and Congress agreeing to lift federal budget caps during this spending cycle, she said more "head room is available to proceed with 2018 appropriations in the coming weeks, including [New Starts and Small Starts] funding."