Blood on the Tracks: Trump’s Budget Would Be Disastrous for Chicago Transit
[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]
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.