The City of New Orleans, the train immortalized in the Steve Goodman song, could disappear under President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget blueprint.
So could the California Zephyr, the Empire Builder and other storied long-distance Amtrak runs, along with the federal funding that could replace Metra’s out-of-date rolling stock, unclog Chicago freight traffic and extend the CTA’s Red Line from 95th Street to 130th Street, according to transit advocates and officials.
Trump’s 2018 “skinny budget” proposes a 13 percent cut on federal funding for transportation, which is directed entirely against nonroad spending. Trump’s 2018 spending plan will start getting more attention in Congress since the bill to replace the Affordable Care Act has been pulled for lack of votes. A full budget release is expected in May.
The president’s transportation budget proposal may ultimately get no further than did the Republican health care bill. But the transit cuts laid out in the proposal are still worrying local transit advocates and agency officials, since they show the administration’s priorities.
“I think the intent is clear in this proposal. If you drive, you deserve federal funds. If you don’t drive, you don’t deserve federal funds,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a train advocacy group.
Harnish said that Trump’s proposals have little chance of passage as they now stand. “But the fact that this is the position of the Department of Transportation, that only driving has value to the federal government, is a really, really bad policy statement,” Harnish said.
Transportation expert Yonah Freemark said that the Chicago area, with its large network of mass transit and freight rail, may be one of the worst hit in the nation in terms of cuts under the proposal.
Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld called the proposal “unnerving.”
“It’s far from being something that has enough detail for people to seriously consider, but it’s a telltale — it’s signaling what the intention is,” Scheinfeld said.
The skinny budget proposes increasing defense spending by $52.3 billion and advocates increases for Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security while slashing almost everything else. In regard to transportation, the document proposes cutting spending by $2.4 billion, reducing or eliminating programs that are “inefficient, duplicative of other federal efforts or that are better delivered by states, localities or the private sector.”
The administration proposes a multiyear plan to shift the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration to an independent, non-governmental organization — something that has the support of major airlines, according to Airlines for America, an industry trade group. The FAA would continue to provide oversight for the system.
The proposal would end federal support for Amtrak’s long-distance train service and future funding for new transit projects. Future investments for new transit projects “would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” the budget blueprint states.
Funding for highways, like federal money for maintenance received by the Illinois Department of Transportation, would be unaffected, said Freemark, who writes the blog the Transport Politic.
The budget proposal “terminates federal support for Amtrak’s long-distance train services, which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses.” The proposal said the Amtrak cuts would allow the agency to focus on better managing its state-supported and Northeast Corridor train services.
The effect of this cut would be to reduce by a quarter the number of Amtrak trains that come into Chicago’s Union Station, according to Audrey Wennink, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit research group. State-supported trains like the Hiawatha to Milwaukee and the Lincoln Service to Springfield would remain, though their ridership could get hurt by the loss of the long-distance trains with their connections.
“It’s a network,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “Fewer trains in the network means lower ridership on all the trains.”
For passengers going to places like St. Louis and Carbondale, the cut would mean fewer trains — for example, one of the three trains to Carbondale is the long-distance City of New Orleans, Wennink explained. But for passengers going to St. Paul, or Cleveland or San Francisco, there would be no trains at all, she said.
Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the proposed cuts are ironic given Trump’s talk about investing in transportation infrastructure and jobs.
“His cutbacks to Amtrak go in exactly the opposite direction,” Learner said. He said the cuts will particularly hurt people in rural communities and midsize cities, as well as seniors and students.
“People will have less mobility,” said Learner. “That’s not good for our society, and it’s certainly not good for our economy.”
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago, the senior Illinois member on the House transportation committee, said he doubts all the cuts will happen.
“We’ve had these fights before,” Lipinski said.
He said while Amtrak may see some reduced funding, he thinks there are enough Republicans that support Amtrak service to keep reductions from going too deep.
The cuts to funding for new transit projects would not affect the first phase of the CTA’s $2.1 billion Red-Purple Line modernization program. In the last weeks of the Obama administration, the city was able to pass a tax-increment financing bill to help match $1.1 billion in federal funding. The program, which starts at the end of next year, will rebuild century-old tracks and four stations while constructing a bypass north of the Belmont station to allow for more capacity.
But the cuts would leave in doubt a proposal that has been discussed for decades to extend the Red Line into what advocates call a “transit desert” south of 95th Street.
To help fund past projects, the CTA has used federal grants under the New Starts and the TIGER grant programs, both at risk under the proposal, Freemark said. The Create program to unclog rail traffic with new underpasses, overpasses and other upgrades also has used TIGER money.
“Eliminating funding for transit projects, as the president’s budget proposes, would cut jobs, decrease service, make commutes longer and create significant challenges for both transit agencies across the country and residents that rely on transit to get to work or school every day,” the CTA said in a statement.
The cuts also would affect Metra’s ability to spend on new capital projects, like new locomotives. The commuter rail agency needs $12 billion over the next 10 years to achieve and maintain the system in a state of good repair, and it anticipates getting about a fourth from federal sources, said Metra CEO Don Orseno. Metra is already hurting from the lack of a state capital bill, Orseno has said.
“As we have been saying for years, Metra needs more capital investment, not less, and that includes funding from the federal government,” Orseno said. “Cutting federal capital funding is a serious and short-sighted step in the wrong direction.”
The Regional Transportation Authority’s executive director, Leanne Redden, said she knows it’s just a proposal and hopes there would be no public transportation cuts.
“With the current funding needs of our transit region and throughout the country, any discussion of cuts is not what we want to hear,” Redden said.
U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, a suburban Republican, noted that Trump is required by law to submit his budget request to Congress, and that Trump had done what he promised during his campaign by making the top priority strengthening the military. Hultgren said his office has been working with local officials, getting their input on key transportation projects, and noted that budget-making authority ultimately rests with Congress.
“I support regional projects that will maintain Illinois’ leadership as a global transportation hub and ensure our residents can get from A to B safely and efficiently,” Hultgren said in an email.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a Chicago Democrat and member of the House appropriations subcommittee on transportation, said he thinks the budget proposal is “dead on arrival,” noting there is bipartisan support for transportation and infrastructure. But that doesn’t mean he is not worried.
“Nothing this administration can do would surprise me,” Quigley said. “They honestly don’t know how to govern.”
Quigley said the president’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, a multiyear plan that is separate from the skinny budget proposal, is not expected to be released until this fall.