National transit industry group says federal money for projects like ART won't materialize
Mayor Derides people who Doubt ART’s Fed Money
Berry Insists Needed $69 Million Will Come, Others Explain What Plan B Would Look Like
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
Mayoral candidate Brian Colón says that Mayor Richard Berry’s administration dismisses people who question whether the city will get all, or even any, of its federal grant money to complete the $126 million Albuquerque Rapid Transit project as wackos who “are wearing a tinfoil hat.”
If that’s the case, Berry’s minions will have to start accusing a Washington, D.C.,-based transit advocacy group of slapping rolls of Reynolds Wrap on their heads.
On March 9, Transportation for America, a group of elected officials, business people and civic leaders that advocates for “smart, homegrown, locally driven transportation solutions,” raised the possibility that the Trump administration could kill or greatly reduce funding for the Small Starts grant program – the source of the federal money the city needs to complete ART.
“Despite the ongoing discussion emanating from the White House about a $1 trillion infrastructure package, over the next few weeks, we’ll discover where the Trump administration’s transportation priorities truly lie as they release their first budget, one which could very well slash funding for competitive multimodal grants and transit capital construction,” TFA said in its newsletter.
“While the bulk of annual federal transportation spending is sourced from the highway trust fund and could be somewhat insulated from the worst of these cuts, discretionary cuts would fall disproportionately on funding for new transit.”
With ART more than 20 percent complete, the city has paid, or committed to pay, $35.8 million for construction and electric buses. That represents 63 percent of the $57.2 million in local money and previous federal grant money that the city has on hand for the project.
What happens if Fed Money Doesn’t Get Approved?
What the city doesn’t have is final approval from the Federal Transit Administration for the $69 million in Small Starts money it needs to complete ART. That raises the question of what the city will do if it doesn’t get all of its federal money, or if it doesn’t get any of it.
So far, the Berry administration hasn’t put forward any contingency plan, despite being asked for one by the City Council. Instead of a plan, the city has repeatedly insisted that no city that has advanced this far in the grant process has been denied a Small Starts grant.
Mayoral spokeswoman Rhiannon Samuel gave ABQ Free Press Weekly this statement when asked what the city would do if it didn’t get all of its requested federal grant money:
“In the unlikely event that the full funding is not awarded, the city will need to evaluate all the resources available at that time, including other federal funds, in order to complete the project.”
The city’s refrain that no city has ever been denied federal transit funds offends Colón, who said that with the unpredictable Trump in office, previous history doesn’t matter.
“If this happens, [the city gets reduced federal funding, or none at all] it will be a complete disaster,” said Colón, a Democrat running for mayor. “We have a federal administration that is no-holds barred. A new day has dawned in the federal government. He [Berry] needs to tell the public what his Plan B is,” Colón said.
“It’s not fair to say this has never happened before, and it’s not fair to say that anybody who questions whether we’ll get funding, that they are wearing a tinfoil hat.”
State Auditor Tim Keller, who is also running for mayor, said that any scenario short of full federal funding “is a terrible scenario, no matter what.”
If the city keeps building ART, it will have to pay the general contractor, Bradbury Stamm Construction, for all of the work it has done. And if the city doesn’t get its federal money, it would have to find it elsewhere.
“You have to pay, no matter what,” Keller said, adding that bond rating companies would downgrade the city’s bond rating if it carried a large, unfunded debt on its books.
So what could the city do, if in April or May, it learns that it won’t get ART funding?
It could order an immediate halt to construction and try to redesign the project to fit the reduced funding. Or it could look for more money.
Pete Dinelli, a former city councilor and city chief public safety officer, said a likely option would be for the city to sell revenue bonds, which would be paid off with gross receipts tax revenue. That route would require the votes of seven of the nine city councilors.
Dinelli also said the city could cancel its $23 million bus order for ART and use that money for construction.
Keller said just stopping the project isn’t an option. “The new mayor has to be ready to make the best of it or deal with a huge hole in the road,” Keller said.
Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press.