Trump admin could approve new projects through September

Facing bi-partisan pushback around the country, President Trump’s transportation department has loosened a freeze on new projects, now saying that it will continue to evaluate new projects for approval through September.

In correspondence regarding a Minnesota project that is getting late lobbying from opponents, the acting chief of the Federal Transit Administration said that the administration will continue to consider applications for funding and left open the possibility of approving projects between now and October 1.

The new date is a later deadline than a message given earlier to the Bay Area regarding Caltrain electrification – a project which has been fully reviewed and cleared for approval, but is hung up awaiting the Transportation Secretary’s signature – that no new projects would get funding if the national transit capital programs continued to be eliminated in the president’s budget expected out in mid-May.

The position in the President’s draft budget, as described in a note from the White House budget office cited in the Washington Post article, is the position long articulated by the Heritage foundation, that transit improvements (but not highway expansions through cities) should be funded only with local funds.

Around the country, Members of Congress of both parties have come out to defend projects valued for economic development in their districts, and rural Republicans have been pushing back hard against the Amtrak cuts.

The economic development arguments are about transportation and also jobs. Powerful Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch of Utah, whose state would gain manufacturing plant that would serve Caltrain electrification and other projects, told the Washington Post that he was “going to do what we can to get that done.”

Transportation Secretary Chao also seemed to be leaning more favorably to the Boston area’s Green Line extension, following advocacy by Massachusetts Governor Baker, a Republican, although she would not give a final commitment, according to this report from the Boston Globe.

The $1.9 billion Minnesota Southwest light rail project would connect Eden Prairie, MN to downtown Minneapolis. As with Caltrain electrification a set of Republicans wrote to Chao urging the administration not to approve the project. The Minnesota project isn’t quite as far along as Caltrain – they expect their final plan including all non-federal funding to be submitted this summer. Caltrain submitted the final plan to the FTA last fall.

The fate of Caltrain electrification, which had passed administrative review by February and is ready for construction to start, remains murky, according to a Friday report from Senator Feinstein in remarks to a group of Silicon Valley Executives on Friday, California’s inland republicans are still unified in their opposition to Caltrain electrification, and encouraged executives to contact these members of Congress. Caltrain’s extension with its contractors lasts until June, and Caltrain will pay a penalty of up to $20Million for this extension of the shovel-ready project, which was ready to go if the project, which had passed all hurdles for approval except the secretary’s signature, which could have been granted as early as mid-February.

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