Can Congress Over-Ride FTA Recommendation Against Funding Light Rail and Bus Rapid Transit? Maybe.

We’ve heard the Met Council say for years that the federal government was on board to underwrite the expansion of the metro’s light rail (Southwest and Bottineau LRT), and the addition two bus rapid transit (BRT) projects (the Orange line and the Gold Line). It was always inevitable; the funding train had left the station.

I have no doubt that the Met Council got a warm reception from the Bush and Obama administrations. but things change, elections happen, priorities shift and now we have a $20 trillion-dollar debt squeezing the public purse.

This week the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) clearly stated that none of the Minnesota projects would be funded. Period.

So why is that not the end of the story?

Congress cannot explicitly earmark projects anymore but it can send a loud and clear signal to the FTA that it wants a project funded by appropriating a dollar amount that nearly matches the funding request. And, of course, Congress has other ways of letting the Trump administration’s FTA know what it wants.

So, when the Met Council said this week that it was not worried about the FTA’s lack of support, that it was “confident” that the funding would come through, it is not delusional. But it might be a tad overconfident given the explicit language in the 2019 report, and the pressure for Congress to build infrastructure that, for example, actually reduces congestion. Like roads.

It is possible that our two U.S. Senators and perhaps other members of the delegation, will prevail on the president and the FTA to make one or more of these projects happen. But the budgets released by Congress and the President are only blueprints; Congress must pass appropriations bills to get the money flowing and spent.

But if the FTA, headed by fiscal-hawk Secretary Elaine Chao, does not want to approve a project, it has the power to ignore Congress. Got it?

Here is what is noteworthy about the FTA’s report this year:  All four Minnesota projects were specifically referenced. The report even used bold, underlined print:

The FTA is limiting funding to “projects with existing full funding grant agreements. For the remaining projects in the CIG program, FTA is not requesting or recommending funding. Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.”

That is pretty darned clear—and this explicit language was not in the 2018 report.

The 2019 report went on to say: “The administration has developed a comprehensive infrastructure proposal that accelerates projects, spurs private sector innovation, and improves how the Federal government delivers infrastructure projects. Transit projects will be eligible to compete for federal financial support in this proposal. However, none of the projects listed in the tables below (2A, 2B, 2C) are recommended for funding from the CIG program.” (This time I added the bold underlining.)

All four of the Minnesota projects are listed in the tables 2A, 2B, and 2C.

It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the projects are not eligible for federal infrastructure funding under the Trump plan.

Note: The Council has already spent about $345 million on the LRT projects; it has even bought and taken delivery of $3-million-dollar Siemens trains for a route that has not broken ground. The trains are not compatible with other trains in the LRT system.

The Council is allowed to make advanced purchases because the SWLRT project had reached the “engineering” phase. The FTA, however, always cautions that any money spent before it funds a project is on the Met Council, not the feds.

Considering the explicit nature of the 2019 report, the Council should check its confidence level, and re-think spending in advance of federal approvals.

And be prepared to explain to Hennepin County residents and the Legislature what it plans to do with all those trains if SWLRT is not built. Is there a market for those Siemens trains? Perhaps the Council and Hennepin County are planning to build the line without federal funds?

Taxpayers who are not enamored of the Council’s expansion plans should keep talking to their elected officials. This is not yet done.