March 21, 2017

Berry admin not worried, but federal funds for ART not set in stone

Albuquerque Rapid Transit sign in downtown Albuquerque

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s administration is voicing confidence that $50 million in federal funding will come their way to help finance the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project.

That’s at least what the city’s Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan said Monday evening at a city council meeting. He mentioned that former President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget recommendations include “a $50 million earmark” for the bus rapid transit project and that even though Congress hasn’t approved a budget, the money is still “currently on the legislative docket to be passed.”

ART, now well into construction with torn roads and narrow lanes that hold back traffic in the heart of Central Avenue, is projected to be 10 miles of dedicated lanes in the street for a rapid bus system with 20 stations. The project is slated to be up and running this fall, but it’s drawn controversy among some residents and business owners along the route, who have blamed slow sales on the project’s construction.

More controversy came last week when President Donald Trump released his budget recommendations for fiscal year 2018, which freezes all funding for a Federal Transit Administration grant program for local public transportation projects—including ART.

Albuquerque is banking on $69 million from this Small Starts grant program for its overall $126 million projected costs to ART. Though the project has received other smaller federal funds, none of that $69 million has been put in place yet.

At the council meeting, Riordan said that since Trump released his budget proposal, city staff “did go back and talked to the congressional delegation staff,” who “still remained completely supportive of the project.’

“And we’ve also talked with FTA, and they’re going to continue to proceed with all of our grant agreements,” he said. “The day before the announcement was no different than the day after the announcement of Trump’s budget.”

But the $69 million in Obama’s 2017 budget doesn’t guarantee that money. In recent years, Congress rarely passed full budgets and instead opted for short-term continuing resolutions to fund the federal government. Federal fiscal year 2017 actually ends Sept. 30, and so far none of the money earmarked for ART has been in a congressional continuing resolution.

Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic congresswoman representing the Albuquerque area, said the future of federal ART funding will depend on what congressional leadership wants to do with the rest of the money marked for FY2017.

He added that presidential budget recommendations are partly symbolic and don’t necessarily reflect what’s going to happen in reality.

“They’re not really the guiding documents,” Gallegos said. “They’re more philosophical documents.”

That doesn’t mean the Republican Berry, who has made ART his signature project in the last two years of his administration, didn’t take a risk on depending on federal money for more than half of the cost of the high-profile and controversial project.

The next deadline for a new continuing budget resolution is next month, which will mark the first time the Republican-controlled congress approves budget spending under Trump. It will also be the last likely congressional negotiations for funding the rest of FY2017.

Lujan Grisham cannot lobby directly for ART money in the budget because of a congressional ban on earmarks, or spending for projects directly in their districts. But she can lobby for spending in the Small Starts FTA grant program, which ART falls under.

“We’re gearing up for submitting recommendations,” Gallegos said. “If they come up with a deal, it will be by leadership and the [Trump] administration behind closed doors, unfortunately. That doesn’t mean the city can’t lobby them to make sure the money is there.”

Even if the $50 million in federal funds for FY2017 comes through as Riordan said, that still could leave $19 million less from the city’s original planning. At the Monday council meeting, Councilor Ken Sanchez asked Riordan about what might happen if the federal government denies the rest of that money for ART during FY2018.

Riordan responded that “the first fallback” would be other regular FTA funding for the city, particularly “programmatic” funding that comes to Albuquerque each year for city buses. He quickly emphasized that dipping into this money “is not something we feel is going to be necessary at this point” before repeating a mantra that Berry’s administration has been saying ever since Trump’s budget recommendations went public.

“There is no project in the history of projects that’s at this level that has ever not gotten its funding,” Riordan said.

“And let’s hope history repeats itself,” Sanchez added.