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The president’s new budget proposal calls for directing hundreds of millions of dollars in construction grants to bus and rail improvements across six states.
The Biden administration wants to boost major bus and rail projects in six states as part of a spending blueprint it delivered to Congress this week.
The new projects that the U.S. Department of Transportation included in its budget request would be in New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, Memphis, Tennessee and San Antonio. The projects are far along enough in their planning stages that federal officials anticipate that they could be ready for federal funding in the next fiscal year.
“By providing projects in the pipeline the potential to advance to construction grant agreements when they are ready, rather than making them wait for the next federal budget cycle to be completed, an opportunity exists to advance the projects more quickly and thereby minimize cost escalation and possible financing costs,” the Federal Transit Administration explained in budget documents.
All the projects would require local sources of funding, in addition to any money coming from Washington.
The new projects that the administration recommended funding of are:
New York and New Jersey: The construction of rail tunnels underneath the Hudson River between the two states. The new tunnels would alleviate a chokepoint in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor leading into New York’s Penn Station, and would be part of a $12 billion effort called the Gateway Project to increase capacity there. The Biden administration recommended $100 million for the project, far from the total price of the improvements.
But there are still many questions about how the project would be governed as well as financed. FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez said including the money in the president’s budget was an “affirmation that they are on the right track.”
New York City: Another 1.5-mile segment of the Second Avenue subway on the east side of Manhattan to East Harlem. The administration proposed $400 million for the project, which includes three new stations. The extension would bring the line from 96th Street to 125th Street. Polly Trottenberg, the second-highest official at the federal transportation department and a former New York City transportation commissioner, said the extension would “provide an incredibly important link to a community that has been traditionally underserved.”
The project, which was first proposed nearly a century ago, has been controversial because of its enormous cost. The New York Times estimated that the most recent segment of the subway cost $2.5 billion a mile, the most expensive transit project in the world. Trottenberg said the Biden administration would try to keep costs down. “We’re going to be working closely with the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) and other grantees to do everything we can to make sure we’re delivering projects that are the best use of taxpayer dollars, and that are as on time and on budget as they can be,” she told reporters.
Seattle: An upgrade converting a busy bus line to bus rapid transit in the Seattle area. The administration recommended $60 million for improvements along a route between downtown Seattle and the University of Washington’s campus. The RapidRide J Line, as it is known, would include upgraded bus stops, off-board fare collection, traffic priority signals, bus-only lanes and bike lanes. “These federal funds will allow Metro and the city of Seattle to prepare for a future where faster, dependable transit service encourages people to get from behind the wheel and on to one of our green transit options anywhere they need to go,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in an emailed statement.
San Francisco Bay Area: An extension of BART subway service six miles from the Berryessa Station through downtown San Jose to Santa Clara, part of an effort to better connect Silicon Valley to San Francisco. The administration recommended $200 million for the project, which is a partnership between the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district.
Memphis, Tennessee: A bus rapid transit line in Memphis connecting downtown with the University of Memphis and the medical district. The administration recommended $46 million for the improvements.
San Antonio: An 11.7-mile bus rapid transit line to connect downtown, the airport and several dense commercial and residential areas in the city. The administration asked for $158 million for the project. The project “is designed to move more people, faster and farther. It’s a high-quality, modern public transportation system that delivers frequent service within dedicated lanes and outside regular traffic,” San Antonio’s transit agency explained. “The system features signal priority, off-board fare collection, raised platforms and stations spaced farther apart.”
Southern California: A 6.7-mile light rail extension in the Los Angeles area. The East San Fernando Valley project would include 11 stations, new vehicles, a storage and maintenance facility and overhead wires. The administration recommended $250 million for the project, which would use a public-private partnership.
In addition to the new projects, the Biden administration proposed speeding up payments to projects that have already received funding from the FTA through its Capital Investment Grants, an umbrella category of grants that covers most of the federal government’s spending on local transit construction.
The proposal relies on additional money Congress set aside for the program through the bipartisan infrastructure law, and it would span both the current and next fiscal years.
Speeding up payments to agencies that already have full funding grant agreements, the FTA said in its budget proposal, “would not only potentially lower financing costs incurred on these projects, but also allow FTA to better manage the overall program in the future given the increasing number of projects and demand for funds.”
The transportation department said more local transit agencies have been lining up more projects for CIG grants in the last year.
Of course, the Biden administration has championed big transit projects much more than the Trump administration before it. Transit allies complained that the Trump administration held up funding for local agencies that secured CIG grants and effectively blocked the Gateway project from getting federal funding.
A list of projects currently in the pipeline for CIG grants is available here.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.