Will Streetcar Funding Dry Up?
Slate, a left-leaning news site, considers the implications for transit of Trump’s naming of Elaine Chao to head the Department of Transportation. It concludes,
the investments she favors may more quietly reflect conservative tenets like heavy highway spending, disregard for energy efficiency, and the denial of funds to transit and pedestrian projects in densely populated areas.
This should not be surprising, especially for streetcar proponents. But it should be alarming for them. As my former colleague Joe Miller wrote in 2014,
What streetcar advocates really have to fear is not the defunding of urban transit, but the defunding of streetcars in favor of other forms of transit. Past administrations favored transit projects that reduced congestion or improved mobility, so streetcars received few federal dollars. The Obama administration’s desire to use transit projects to create “livable communities” has made federal streetcar funding possible.
Mind you, overall Federal transit funding may not change much. But as Slate pointed out, the Obama Administration was an outlier on how the funding was spent:
Obama’s first transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, for example, was a major proponent of diverting DOT spending away from highways (many of which are boondoggles, the least of which costs many times as much as the hated streetcars) to other transportation and infrastructure projects. He supervised the creation of the TIGER grant program, which injected billions in federal money into local, multimodal projects, and was reauthorized repeatedly by Congress.
Recall that in 2013, TIGER funding provided $20 million toward the streetcar project in Kansas City. And according to the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance (KCRTA), the proposed $227 million Main Street extension of the streetcar assumes up to $114 million in federal funding. Fourteen million of that is from designated regional funds (STP/CMAQ), which means other regional transportation projects would have to wait if streetcar expansion moves ahead. The remaining $100 million now may be pie-in-the-sky.
In July 2014, Mayor James campaigned for the first ill-fated streetcar extension line by saying, “We really have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here.” Considering the President-Elect’s Secretary choice, he may have been right. It remains to be seen if he and other streetcar supporters believed that rhetoric.