Backers of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project were dealt some disconcerting news Thursday, namely that President Donald Trump’s proposed budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018 contains no money for the Central Avenue project.
But Mayor Richard Berry says Albuquerque residents shouldn’t worry just yet, because funding for the project is contained in President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for the 2017 fiscal year, which Congress will take up soon.
The Trump budget blueprint proposes limiting funding for the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program – the same New Starts grant program that Albuquerque is banking on to provide $69 million for the ART project. Specifically, his blueprint calls for limiting New Starts grants “to projects with existing full funding grant agreements only.”
Albuquerque does not yet have a full funding grant agreement in place.
In his 2018 budget proposal, Trump says, “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.”
Berry says Trump’s blueprint is for the 2018 budget. Congress will first consider the 2017 budget – though that fiscal year ends on Sept. 30 – and Obama did include ART in that budget proposal.
“We find ourselves in about the same place we were before today,” Berry said Thursday. “We need to make sure we’re in the 2017 budget.”
He said the city is continually lobbying for final inclusion in that.
ART will transform Central Avenue into a rapid transit corridor with a nine-mile stretch of bus-only lanes and bus stations. The $119 million project is scheduled for completion by the end of this year.
While presidents put forth budget proposals, it is ultimately up to Congress to adopt a budget and send it to the executive for approval.
Nevertheless, the lack of federal funding in Trump’s budget plan has at least one city councilor concerned.
“This has been one of the major concerns I’ve had throughout this tug of war: trusting in uncertain sources of funds,” said Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis, one of two councilors who voted against ART.
“Why was the city counting their chicks before they hatched?” Lewis asked. “Wishful thinking is not sound leadership. When I sponsored the Interstate 25 Paseo flyover, we built the funding piece by piece, before we brought in the earth-moving equipment, not leaving gaps that could later collapse in on itself.”
Douglas Peterson, a local developer and a member of the coalition that sued to stop ART, is skeptical that the federal funds will materialize.
“If (the funding) hasn’t been committed to at this point, then this new budget from Trump doesn’t bode well,” he said. Peterson said he thinks the mayor is probably scrambling right now.
“I’m worried the mayor is going to come and try to take (the funding) from New Mexico and Albuquerque taxpayers,” he said.
But he said he’s also excited at the possibility that a lack of federal funding could stop the project.
“ART is still a travesty for Albuquerque,” Peterson said.
Berry said that if ART isn’t funded in the 2017 federal budget, the city would have to look at its options.
“There’s no indication at this point that we’d be the first city in history not to get funding after getting to this point,” the mayor said.
Berry said it might take more than one funding cycle for the federal ART money to come through. But he said that even if ART receives partial funding in the 2017 budget, it would then qualify for subsequent funding under the Trump budget proposal.
City Councilor Pat Davis, who was in Washington, D.C., earlier this week for a National League of Cities conference, said he heard that the administration is planning to include project funding in an omnibus infrastructure bill.
“It’s incumbent on all of us to press the administration to live up to that commitment and fund this project,” Davis said. He said he has strongly encouraged the Mayor’s Office “to go to D.C. and get that commitment in writing.”
The City Council has pushed for a contingency plan in case the Small Starts grant is never awarded.
To date, city officials have been confident that the funding will come through. The FTA has recommended the funding.
“This would be an historical event if we were not to receive this grant agreement,” Michael Riordan, Albuquerque’s Chief Operating Officer, said in November.
But that reassurance isn’t very comforting to Lewis.
“Recently, there are a lot of things that have happened in politics and government that the soothsayers believed would never happen,” he said Thursday. “Look how far that got the predictors.”