The money will come through.
Michael Riordan, Albuquerque’s chief operating officer, offered that assurance repeatedly late Monday during a presentation to city councilors.
The Federal Transit Administration, he said, will provide the $69 million “Small Starts” grant that’s critical to carrying out the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project.
The FTA has recommended the funding, but Congress hasn’t yet approved a budget for the coming year.
Crews working for the city, in any case, are already building the ART project’s nine-mile network of bus lanes and bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue. The city is using its own money, with the expectation of reimbursement when the federal grant is approved.
The council has pushed for a contingency plan in case – however unlikely – the Small Starts grant is never awarded. The administration hasn’t provided one, at least not in detail.
Councilors on Monday asked Riordan why.
There’s no need, he said, to worry people with speculation.
“It has never happened,” Riordan said. “This would be an historical event if we were not to receive this grant agreement.”
It’s standard practice, he said, for cities to begin construction once a project wins a federal recommendation, an environmental clearance and approval to start work – all of which the city has.
Pushed by councilors to at least consider the possibility of not getting all of the money, Riordan said Monday that the administration would go after other federal funds that could be applied to the project. He mentioned about $33 million in federal transportation funds allocated to the region that the city could pursue.
The administration doesn’t support a tax increase or fare increase, he said.
Councilor Ken Sanchez said the public deserves to know whether Albuquerque Rapid Transit could eat into the city’s regular capital or operating budgets.
He sponsored legislation passed in September that called for a contingency plan and other information to be submitted to councilors by Nov. 1. The administration didn’t provide one by then, though it isn’t clear there are any consequences.
“I think it’s important that we are as transparent as we possibly can be,” Sanchez said.
A transportation expert based in Washington, D.C., backed up Riordan’s assessment on the funding.
In a Journal interview, Jeffrey Boothe, a consultant who’s worked on Small Starts and similar projects since 1982, said it’s standard practice to begin work before a grant is finalized and that any concerns otherwise are “completely unfounded.”
The federal government isn’t likely to wrap up its appropriations process until December, he said, “but Congress is very good at honoring FTA requests for project funding where a project is through (the National Environmental Policy Act) and recommended for funding by the FTA.”
The city has the environmental clearance. In 2015, the FTA granted a “categorical exclusion” that exempts the city from having to complete a more burdensome environmental review.
That decision, however, is the subject of a federal lawsuit pending before the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Also, an FTA official said in court earlier this year that the agency is considering a traffic study and other information submitted by the Coalition to Make ART Smart, a group that opposes the current design of the project. The FTA said it would take appropriate action if it determines the exemption wasn’t warranted.