As we related in the last post, Ann Arbor has been dreaming of trains for the last decade. We have paid for multiple studies, and detailed plans and reports have been produced. Our Mayor, Christopher Taylor, has named rail travel as a top priority. In a letter sent to many constituents early in January, he stated “Expanded rail service is vitally important to the future of Ann Arbor”. (Here are some further comments reported by the Ann Arbor News.) Now the City Council has just a couple of months before the next Budget is adopted. How much of the City’s resources should continue to be devoted to this purpose? After so many years with rail in the future, is it time to relegate these dreams to the past?
For Love of Trains
First of all, this question is not about whether we love trains. Of course we love trains. Most of us of any age or travel experience have happy memories to relate. (I have a sentimental description of my own experiences in this post from 2011.) Trains are part of the sensibility installed in us from childhood. Here is a video of a favorite childhood song about trains. Wouldn’t you like to climb aboard on this train, or at least join in?
Trains are a great mode of travel. Sit and read (or work) or just look at the scenery. No worries. Why wouldn’t we want to be able to travel to Detroit without worrying about freeway traffic and parking? And as a commute, it can’t be beat, especially if that “last mile” problem can be solved. (Transit from the station to work.) If you have visited a city with a light rail system, you know how nice it is to travel around an urban area that way. Just hop on, ride a few minutes, hop off.
For all these reasons, and for several others, the dream has survived since 2006 and has been enthusiastically adopted by many on our Council, and by many citizens. The rail projects have all been studied and are ready to be implemented, more or less. But is this possible? Most of all, can we afford this vision under the present circumstances?
A Very Expensive Wish List
Because consultants have been hired to do studies of our rail wish list, we have some rather good numbers now for how much these projects will cost. The costs for the Ann Arbor Train Station have been kept rather obscure through the Environmental Review process, as has much other information. A construction estimate was provided via a FOIA by Dave Askins (thanks to a direct response by Howard Lazarus, the City Administrator). A couple of feasibility studies have been completed for the Connector. The North-South Commuter Rail (aka WALLY) Feasibility Study has recently concluded; here is the Financial Analysis. The Ann Arbor-Detroit Commuter Rail was folded into the Regional Transit Authority and cost estimates were included in that plan (RMTP) .
From all of these studies, we can compile a total of the full cost of the rail wish list for Ann Arbor. Note that these figures are not the amount that the City expects to pay. The Connector, WALLY, and the Ann Arbor-Detroit Commuter Rail are all expected to be cooperative projects and other governmental entities are expected to contribute. (The Ann Arbor Station is an Ann Arbor project alone.) But in every case, the expectation has been that the main burden of the cost will be borne by the Federal Government. Often the statement has been made that 80% of the cost will be Federal, and the 20% local matching amount is partly offset in theory by the State of Michigan (MDOT).
Costs for these projects are of two types: Capital (original construction) and Operating (annual cost of operation and maintenance). Capital costs are a one-time investment, but operating costs are perennial.
Making Decisions about the City Budget
Most City expenditures are based on fairly accurate estimates, either for existing contracts or from well-fleshed out plans. Most budgeted items will be spent as described, with a fair certainty that the deliverable will be produced. There is never quite enough money for all the things we would like to achieve as a community.
The City Administrator, Howard Lazarus, has been making presentations to the Council in advance of the budget. Capital improvements are suggested for firehouses, streetlights, sidewalks, dams, and signals. The slide also showed the following amounts ($millions) for FY 2018 and FY 2019. The last column to the right is “FY 2020+”. Taken all together, the rail items constitute 43% of all capital improvements. These are General fund expenditures in the City Budget for the next couple of years.
If Council is going to continue to use Ann Arbor city funds (taxes) to pursue these rail projects, it is making a calculated gamble. We are continuing to put chips on the table in hopes that there will be a big payoff. And the expectation has been that the deep pockets at the table belong to the Federal government. That is no longer true.
The Shifting Sands of Federal Funding
With the Trump presidency, predictions are impossible. One can, however, hear solid hints of what he is thinking. There are other players in Federal funding, especially many different factions and interests among members of Congress. Here are a few high points about Federal transportation funding, which has usually been very contentious.
- The gold standard is outright grants. In other words, Federal taxes distributed directly to states and localities for use in transportation projects. This is what we would like for all our projects. There has been a move in recent years toward encouraging localities to apply for loans instead. The TIFIA program is an example.
- Pennies were falling from heaven in 2009, with the Obama stimulus program, better known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). This was especially friendly to transit programs and included the high speed rail program (HSIPR) program that has paid for our preliminary rail station study. It was not renewed with the new Republican Congress in 2010. All ARRA grants expire at the end of the current fiscal year (September 2017).
- The main source for transportation grants has been the Federal gas tax, or Highway Trust Fund. The tax rate has not increased since 1993. This fund was originally to pay for the Interstate system. A mass transit fund was added to it in 1982. The Transportation Act, which is the law that governs how the money is spent, has expired a number of times and been renewed and rewritten. This is always a big food fight in Congress. The way the money is allocated changes in each revision. There are always legislators who would like to get rid of the mass transit and alternative transportation provisions so more money can be spent on roads and bridges.
- Through some miracle (and our Senator Debbie Stabenow deserves a lot of credit), the Transportation Act actually got revised and renewed in the last Congress. The name always changes. The last bill was MAP-21; this one is the FAST act.
- An important feature of the Transportation Bill is that items funded by the Highway Trust Fund are not dependent on the Federal Budget because they are not part of the General Fund. This has kept funding of mass transit programs, for example, very stable.
- The FAST Act included rail travel for the first time. BUT it did not attach Highway Trust Fund monies to it. RAIL IS DEPENDENT ON ALLOCATIONS IN THE FEDERAL BUDGET (the General Fund).
- Congress has been keeping the Federal Government running by a series of continuing resolutions. It has not actually passed a budget for a long time. The current Continuing Resolution expires on April 28, 2017.
- Meanwhile, President Trump and Congress are trying to conclude negotiations on a variety of bills and spending priorities. Here is the Budget Blueprint recently published by the White House.
Important Cuts and Immediate Significance
The two most important points affecting grants to local governments for rail in the White House blueprint are the cancellation of TIGER grants and the loss of New Start funding for new projects. TIGER has been a source of discretionary grants – very competitive (only 1 in 20 grant applications funded) but very essential to localities. That is the source that Ann Arbor hoped to tap for the new train station. New Starts have been the method of choice to start a new rail system “fixed guideway program” (which includes Bus Rapid Transit); this would have been the likely source of cash for the Connector or possibly one of the commuter rail systems. Without these, there is literally no Federal grant program that could realistically pay for our rail programs.
Even if Congress does not follow this blueprint, it must still appropriate funds for any grant program. With the Continuing Resolution due by April 28 and tax cuts looming on the horizon, this seems unlikely.
The Trillion-Dollar Question
What about the infrastructure program that President Trump has mentioned? It would not be grants, but rather tax incentives for private investment. The likely mechanism would be “P3” (Public-Private Partnerships) programs where the locality borrows money from private investors. A preliminary list of likely projects has been released, but has no force in law. Many such programs will require a source of revenue, such as fares, tolls, or fees.
ADDENDUM: The Administration’s likely approach is being telegraphed by Elaine Chao, the Transportation Secretary. In this speech she says,
“Investors say there is ample capital available, waiting to invest in infrastructure projects. So the problem is not money. It’s the delays caused by government permitting processes that hold up projects for years, even decades, making them risky investments. That’s why a critical part of the President’s infrastructure plan will include common-sense regulatory, administrative, organizational and policy changes that will encourage investment and speed project delivery.”
This is a clear call for privatized projects. What is not clear is what “impediments” are going to be cleared. Agreement by local governments? Safety regulations? Environmental hazards? Best not to picture this too fully.
Since it is so unlikely that there will be Federal grants to pay for the wish list of rail projects, what should the City Council do? One alternative would be to sit tight and wait for developments. But will they spend substantial funds in the next year on these projects, with all the other priorities? To do so seems to be a triumph of hope over prudence, indeed. Perhaps there is a good lottery running somewhere.