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In Obama Budget, a Glimpse of What Beefed-Up Transit Funding Could Do

10:29 AM EST on March 5, 2014

Nashville BRT is among the transit upgrades in line for funding in 2015. Image: Nashville Public Radio

The budget proposal released by President Obama yesterday fleshes out the transportation ideas put out by the White House last week and includes specific grants for transit upgrades and expansions in 2015, but many of them won't be part of this budget unless Congress agrees to increase funding for transportation.

The White House budget proposes $17.6 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, an increase of about $7 billion from current levels. This would give transit agencies significantly more resources to rehab existing infrastructure and build rail and bus expansions.

Most of the additional funding -- more than $5 billion -- would come in the form of bigger distributions to transit agencies by formula. On top of that, money for transit expansion projects would grow by more than $500 million, a new $500 million program would help fund bus rapid transit projects, and $500 million would be set aside for "a new competitive grant program that will encourage innovative solutions to our most pressing transportation challenges."

Enacting these changes is unlikely, because Obama will have to win Congressional support for funding transportation with corporate tax reform. But a look at the FTA budget provides a sense of how much more can be done for transit each year, given new resources.

The increased funding for transit expansion would go toward light rail in Baltimore, an extension of Boston's Green Line, and commuter rail in Orlando, among other projects. Portland's Columbia River Crossing -- the sprawl bridge/light rail project that apparently just won't die -- is also on the list.

A round of smaller grants that also need Congressional approval would fund bus rapid transit projects in Nashville, Oakland, El Paso, Eugene, and Vancouver, as well as $50 million to advance Fort Lauderdale's streetcar plans.

Image: White House
These transit expansion grants may not happen unless Congress enacts a proposal to increase transportation funding. Image: White House

In a legislative alert, LA Metro CEO Arthur Leachy said the investments in the system "would represent a tripling of the amount of New Starts funding we have, on average, received over the past three decades."

Transit expansion grants that have already been approved by Congress and will be proceeding with or without the funding boost include light rail in Honolulu, the Hartford-New Britain busway, and the Central Corridor light rail line in the Twin Cities.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters in a conference call yesterday that because of American demographic shifts, the Obama administration believes "transit access is going to become increasingly important as a way of moving people."

Foxx said the White House proposal would actually maintain the formula that provides four dollars of gas tax revenue to state DOTs for every dollar that goes to transit. But the overall transit/highway split would shift in the Obama proposal, because transit would receive a larger share of revenue derived from tax reform.

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