After fighting to maintain reasonable funding levels in the transportation bill – and for the inclusion of dedicated transit funding in the first place – the Federal Transit Administration now finds itself up against almost certain funding cuts that imperil rail and bus expansion projects, as well as the agency’s own staffing.
The fiscal cliff deal hasn’t answered many questions. Spending cuts of about 8 percent (the “sequester”) could hit at the beginning of March. The current interim budget, or “continuing resolution,” expires at the end of March. And on top of all of that, another debt ceiling deadline is looming, and Republicans will certainly try to extract spending cuts again in exchange for raising it.
“None of us knows what’s going to happen,” said Sylvia Garcia, U.S. DOT deputy assistant secretary for management and budget, at the Transportation Research Board’s annual conference Wednesday. “No matter what happens, the message from Congress right now is, ‘You’re going to have less money to do what you need to do.’”
While the Federal Highway Administration’s staff is safe from layoffs from the sequester, since they’re funded out of the Highway Trust Fund, the FTA isn’t so lucky. General-funded FTA programs — including the New Starts program for transit expansion, some research, and all FTA administration — are still vulnerable to cuts. Worse, the “across-the-board” nature of the sequester means the FTA would have to apply the cuts evenly among those three areas.
Administrator Peter Rogoff told the TRB audience yesterday that he’ll move “heaven and earth” to keep people working, especially since the agency is already running on a bare-bones budget, and they’re “one person deep in a lot of critical areas.” He’s desperately trying to avoid furloughs, and he pledges to fill vacancies in important positions.