Miami-Dade County

Trump wants to cut transit money needed for Miami-Dade’s SMART Plan

Airport passengers and commuters board a Metrorail car at Miami International Airport on March 25, 2016
Airport passengers and commuters board a Metrorail car at Miami International Airport on March 25, 2016

Miami-Dade’s dream of an expanded rail system may need to detour around the Trump administration’s budgetary wishes.

President Donald Trump’s proposed $4.1 trillion 2018 budget strips about $1 billion from the federal government’s New Starts grant program, the main funding target for Miami-Dade’s “SMART” plan to extend rail countywide. Miami-Dade says it needs at least $900 million from Washington to even consider fully implementing the plan, based on a construction tab of $3.6 billion.

Under the White House proposal, only transit projects already approved for the New Starts funding would receive dollars through 2018. “You guys would have no shot,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

The budget released Tuesday by the Trump administration slashes safety net programs for the poor, targeting food stamps and Medicaid, which would be stripped of more than $800 billion over the next decade, while relying on rosy projections about the nation's economic growth to balance the budget within 10 years. The budget also makes deep cuts into student loans and Social Security disability payments, while boosting military spending by 10 percent and earmarking $1.6 billion to start building a wall on the Mexican border.

“We need people to go to work,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters Monday. “If you are on food stamps, we need you to go to work. If you are on disability and you should not be, we need you to go back to work.”

The proposed transit cuts are part of a budget blueprint for the upcoming fiscal year that amount to a dramatic restructuring of the government, with protection of retirement programs for the elderly, billions of dollars more for the military and the rest of the government bearing the bulk of the reductions. Also on the chopping block: funding for Amtrak that Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democratic senator from Florida, said would mean the end of the train’s run to Miami.

Trump also proposed supporting $1 trillion infrastructure improvements, through road projects, port facilities and other improvements. The plan highlights for-profit companies to build the projects upfront in exchange for decades of revenue tied to their operations. The Trump plan would lift restrictions on tolling for interstate highways and would lower borrowing costs for companies building government projects.

The proposal drew some shrugs from both sides of the aisle. Since Congress has the authority to write budgets, the president is left with power on either end of the process. He can persuade lawmakers to adopt his plan, and he can veto the entire spending bill when it passes Congress.

“Almost every president's budget proposal that I know of is basically dead on arrival,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his senior staff flew to Washington last week for a series of White House meetings on potential federal funding. Michael Hernández, the county communications director, joined the delegation and said Trump officials did not offer a preview of the proposed budget cuts that were coming.

“Mayor Gimenez is confident that MIami-Dade County will receive the federal support necessary to begin work on the SMART Plan,” Hernández said.

Gimenez cited federal funding for the SMART Plan as one justification for Miami-Dade’s changing its policy on immigration violators after Trump took office. In January, the mayor ordered county jails to begin honoring federal detention requests for people held on local charges and also sought for possible deportation. The move was aimed at avoiding sanctions promised by Trump for local governments offering “sanctuary” for immigration violators.

Critics accused Gimenez of caving to a Trump bluff, since federal rules limit how much money the administration can withhold over detainer requests. That argument was bolstered this week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo that endorsed a narrow definition of “sanctuary” jurisdictions that would have exempted Miami-Dade even under the old policy of rejecting detention requests for people held on minor offenses.

The narrower definition was part of the Trump’s administration’s court fight over the proposed crackdown on sanctuary protections, which was challenged by San Francisco and other cities.

Even as the Trump administration backed away from the threat of a quick rollback on federal funds over the issue, it used the budget proposal to push for one long term. The spending plan includes a provision that would change federal law to allow the administration to tie compliance with detention requests to a much broader chunk of federal aid.

Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, said the White House is only adding to the confusion surrounding immigration enforcement.

“You can’t trust anything. That’s my biggest concern,” she said. “You look at a document and say, ‘Okay. This is how we’re going to move forward. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to change tomorrow.”

For Miami-Dade, the Trump administration’s decision on transit funding could mean the difference between an historic expansion of Metrorail and yet another failed effort to expand the system.

A February presentation by the county’s Transportation Department estimated Miami-Dade would face a $2.3 billion funding gap without federal funding for the 67-mile system of expanded rail lines. With $906 million from Washington, that gap drops to $1.4 billion. Both scenarios depend on relatively low construction costs. A 2016 study by AECOM, a consultant hired by Florida to study the SMART Plan, put the development costs at $6 billion.

For 2017, Congress approved about $2.2 billion in New Starts grants, and projects at the front of the line include a $2.8 billion subway extension in Los Angeles and Orlando’s expansion of its SunRail commuter line.

While the Trump budget proposal covers 2018, it encourages Congress to end federal help for local transit projects. “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” according to the budget proposal.

The high competition for federal dollars has some SMART Plan advocates urging Miami-Dade to forgo federal money in favor of local dollars even without Trump cutbacks. Xavier Suarez, a Miami-Dade commissioner, proposed using auto-tag money from Florida and toll dollars paid by motorists on county expressways to help fund new transit projects if Washington won’t.

“It’s my contention that we have to act as if we don’t have federal money,” he said. “This just adds emphasis to that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.