On Thursday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump stepped away from feuding with Twitter to use the social media platform for an uncharacteristic purpose: announcing more than $760 million in federal funding for 10 public transit projects around the country.
“I’m excited to commit $100M to funding to @MiamiDadeCounty, FL in @USDOT funding to connect fast-growing communities through state-of-the-art transit service!” Trump wrote in one of a series of 10 tweets on May 28 that announced each area’s award separately. “Fast, safe, and beautiful infrastructure!”
The Miami award covers a bus rapid transit line in the South Dade area. Trump also committed to funding BRT segments in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Albany, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and Ogden, Utah. Light rail links in Portland and Phoenix also got an award announcement via tweet, as did a commuter rail line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana.
Leaders in several of these communities welcomed the announcements, which appeared to be a high-profile gesture of White House support for public transportation at a time when transit agencies have been hard hit by coronavirus-related ridership and revenue challenges. “It will bring much needed transit relief to communities ranging from Florida City to Kendall, & we hope to have it running in the next couple of years,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote on Twitter on Thursday. In the Phoenix area, Valley Metro spokesperson Madeline Phipps said that “the federal government’s continued support of public transportation ensures that a multi-modal transportation network in Maricopa County is viable for future generations and can support the million more people expected in this region in the years to come.”
But the news did not exactly come as a surprise: All these transit projects were rated highly by the Federal Transit Administration on a list of capital investment grant projects, the funding for which is largely pre-approved by Congress. This would generally mean their funding was all but assured, said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at Eno Center for Transportation. In other words, the tweets amount to an unusual announcement of a normal transaction by a functioning federal agency. Barring some unexpected problem, the cities and counties receiving these grants expected and have planned on receiving this federal support, after a multi-year process of competing for it.
“All that is happening is the administration is moving money that has already been appropriated for the CIG program from the ‘unallocated’ category to the ‘allocated’ category, which happens all the time, throughout the year,” said Davis.
Final steps, such as negotiating grant agreements and payment schedules, still await and may still take months. “Even with the announcement, the money is not technically in their accounts yet,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Center.
A number of transportation policy experts said that they viewed the Trump tweets more as political theater than a sign of meaningful infrastructure progress: The announcements came on the same day that the president acknowledged a grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic’s death toll, which recently crossed 100,000. “He’s just trying to look like he’s doing something,” said Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress.
The political demography of many of the states receiving funds also caught some attention, with a few Twitter users calling the announcements “swing state bribery” and “pork barrel spending.” But while many of the grantees may sit in Republican-leaning states, they will also serve solidly blue cities. The political constituency for public transit in general leans heavily Democratic, while many GOP-aligned groups are known for their aversion to the concept. For example, a failed attempt to halt Phoenix’s light rail expansion in 2019 was funded in part by the conservative Arizona Free Enterprise Club and a city councilmember who is a strong supporter of the president.
Trump’s announcement comes after another flurry of FTA awards in February. That represented a departure from years of unusual delays on FTA grants under the Trump administration. Other projects that are due funding are still waiting for it, according to the think tank Transportation For America.
Meanwhile, roads and highways have received a much larger share of annual transportation spending since President Barack Obama left office. And Trump has consistently tried to cut overall funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation since he entered office.
“Watch what they do, not what they tweet,” said David Bragdon, the executive director of the think tank TransitCenter. “His regime has been relentlessly opposed to transit but Congress appropriates money for it over his objections.”