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Could Trump starve a Tampa Bay transit project of federal funds?

A Proterra Catalyst 40-foot, zero-emission electric bus is seen at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's Metro Rapid bus stop at E. Kennedy Boulevard and Pierce Street Wednesday, May 30, 2018 in Tampa. HART is considering adopting fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly electric busses as an alternative transit option. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times files]
Published Sep. 21, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit line has succeeded where other Tampa Bay transit projects have failed. The project aimed at connecting downtown to the beaches has avoided anti-transit sentiment while securing money and support from local and state sources.

But supporters fear the federal government could slow the project down.

President Donald Trump's administration has created a backlog in distributing highly sought after federal transportation dollars, according to Transportation for America, which promotes improving local transportation.

That could affect the $41 million Central Avenue rapid bus project, which is supposed to get half its funding from the federal government.

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

The advocacy group says the Federal Transit Administration is refusing to distribute more than $1.2 billion that Congress allocated in March to help local transit agencies pay for big-ticket projects.

Trump's 2018 budget sought to cut spending on new transit projects and eliminate grant programs — a move Congress overturned.

The advocacy group accused the administration of an anti-transit bias and changing federal policies to hamper such projects.

"The administration does not seem to be interested in moving these projects forward in a clear and timely manner," Transportation for America spokesman Steve Davis said. "They're trying to put a hold on the process with every bureaucratic hurdle as possible."

That concerns supporters of the Central Avenue bus project, which would add dedicated lanes for buses to about seven miles of First Avenue N and S to link the Pinellas beaches to downtown St. Petersburg.

RELATED: Plan envisions 'rapid' bus trips from St. Pete to beaches. But will Trump fund it?

For months, the rapid bus line was praised as the first local project to land state money and earn a medium-high ranking from the Federal Transit Administration. No transit proposal in the bay area has reached this point in the federal process, said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority executive director Brad Miller.

"All signs about this project technically are very, very, very positive," Miller said. "(Federal officials) really like it. It's relatively low cost, and it's a little different from their other projects."

Perhaps even more surprising given the poor history of past transit initiatives, this project secured money from the local bus agency, received unanimous support from the St. Petersburg City Council and has buy-in from state and local leaders as well as the business community.

But even all that might not be enough to make the rapid bus system a reality. Federal funding in this political climate, Miller said, is "the thing that keeps me up."

"There is obviously a political aspect to it," he said. "There's been sort of a slow down. The Department of Transportation is not allocating the money to other projects that are ahead of ours in the pipeline."

RELATED: Tampa Bay Transit: How rapid buses left light rail in the dust

A dramatic time clock on Transportation for America's website counts the days, hours, minutes and seconds it says the federal government has wasted refusing to hand out funding to qualified rail and bus rapid transit projects.

Davis said the delays are affecting projects around the country, including those in Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Orange County, Calif.

But the federal agency argues that Transportation for America's list is inaccurate and includes projects that haven't been approved yet.

For example, the Central Avenue project appears on the list, but there are several steps local officials have to complete before the transit administration can officially sign off on it. The local transit authority still needs to finish designing the project and the federal agency will have to conduct a risk assessment. So using that project as an example of a project awaiting federal funding is misleading, transit administration officials said.

"Any characterization of (the Federal Transit Administration) delaying the funding of grants is inaccurate as the majority have not met eligibility requirements," the agency wrote in an email responding to questions from the Tampa Bay Times.

Several of the projects singled out by Transportation for America — such as the Orange County, Calif., streetcar — are in the grant document preparation phase, or have engineering and design work that still hasn't been completed, the federal agency said. Those final steps need to be completed before the transit administration will release the money.

RELATED: Learn how bus rapid transit (and rail) could work in Tampa Bay

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, said he was disappointed by the delays in handing out federal funding to other projects. He called any slow down in disbursing money by the Trump administration "very problematic."

"My hope, obviously, is that the funds are distributed in a timely fashion and the administration recognizes the importance of doing so," Crist said.

The Times asked Gov. Rick Scott's office whether the governor, an ardent supporter of the president, whether he would lobby for the federal funded needed for the project? And does he support the Trump administration's attempts to reduce funding for local transit projects?

"The Governor expects federal and local partners to continue their commitments to Florida's infrastructure," spokeswoman Ashley Cook said in response to those questions. "We will continue to keep you informed on any action our office takes on this issue."

Meanwhile, local and state funding is lining up to help pay for the Central Avenue project. The state already agreed to pay for about 25 percent of the $41 million cost. Another 25 percent is set to come from local sources: the Pinellas bus agency and the cities of St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.

But for the project to start operating by late 2020 or early 2021, federal funds are needed to pay the other 50 percent of the cost, about $20 million.

The Pinellas bus agency submitted its federal grant application last year. If all goes as planned, it should receive those dollars by Oct. 1, 2019. Construction of the stations and purchase of buses is expected to take about a year.

But Davis said St. Petersburg could hit the same challenges other cities have. Many have thought they were on track to receive funding, only to have the transit administration request new materials or change the requirements.

"(The federal government) is continually moving the goal posts," Davis said. "The process used to be a lot more transportation and more clear. But it's become a lot more opaque and mysterious under this administration."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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