OP-ED: Does Sen. Schumer understand the Federal Transit Administration grant process completely?

April 2, 2021
Sen. Schumer accuses FTA of allowing MTA grant applications to collect dust - they do not - and not just because the process has been automated for decades.

Last Saturday, Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) held one of his weekend news conference on 14th Street in Manhattan. The subject was available CARES Act funding for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The project he was advocating on behalf of was for access improvements to the New York City Transit Authority 14th Street Canarsie Line. The scope of work would include four elevators at the West 14th Street and Sixth Avenue station and two more at West 14th Street and Seventh Ave station. The project also includes making the pedestrian tunnel linking the two stations accessible to the handicapped.

I would agree with him that NYC subway riders have waited far too long for working elevators at both these two Manhattan subway stations. But I was shocked to hear him blame my old colleagues at the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 Office for his words "stop the stalling, release the money,” and "the MTA’s grant application collects dust."

Yes, Sen. Schumer was instrumental in delivering $14.5 billion for the NY MTA in emergency relief funding over the past 12 months ($3.9 billion last year, $4 billion in January and $6.5 billion several weeks ago).

Sen. Schumer should know better than attempting to score political points by accusing the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office and Washington, D.C., national headquarters of allowing any pending grant to in his words "collect dust" and "stalling the release of funding."1

Here is what Sen. Schumer conveniently left out at his press conference. Authorizing and appropriation of any transit funding is only the first step. It is followed by the Federal Transit Administration issuing a Federal Register Notice. This explains the amount of funding available, along with grant application requirements for any transit agency to apply for. Did the NY MTA previously develop and submit grant applications to apply for these funds under FTA's Transit Award Management System (TrAMS) used to award and manage federal grants? If so, how long ago? What is the current status? Is the grant still in the development stage? Did MTA complete all the requirements under development? This is necessary prior to proceeding to the next step which is FTA giving NY MTA permission to formerly submit the grant. Did NY MTA request permission to utilize pre-award authority? This affords the NY MTA permission to incur costs for reimbursement at a later date prior to grant approval.

Was this a stand alone grant or part of a program of projects? Most NY MTA grants include a series of projects for NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Metro North Rail Road. With several dozen projects, each must past muster. All it takes is one project that is not ready for prime time to result in a delay for advancement of the grant process.

On any given day, the MTA has numerous proposed grants under review. The same is true for more than 30 other grantees in Region 2. Common sense would dictate that the NY MTA would inform FTA what its priorities would be for grant reviews. Where did this grant sit in the NY MTA's wish list? Most grants have to be reviewed by the FTA Regional Office planner, director, Office of Planning and Development, transportation program specialist, regional engineer, Office of Program Management and Oversight, regional civil rights and legal counsel. Each has a series of grant components that they are responsible for reviewing to assure the submission meets all grant requirements under their respective areas of expertise. Some critical issues include programing for projects on the local New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and New York State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), making a environmental finding (NEPA), confirmation that there are no historic preservation issues, realistic budget, implementation schedule, local share (in this case, funding is 100 percent federal) and technical capacity, just to name a few of the basic requirements.

Check out the FTA website under TrAMS for a complete listing of grant requirements as there is not enough space here to list them all. Once a grant is formally submitted, it has to be referred to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for 13 c) certification. Impacted labor unions are afforded an opportunity by DOL to comment on the proposed Program of Projects. FTA affords DOL up to 30 days for a response. Based upon my previous experience working at the FTA Region 2 Office, it averages several months for a grant to pass the development process prior to formal submission. After submission, actual obligation of grants averages 36 days. Has Sen. Schumer or a member of his staff ever asked both the MTA and FTA for the current status for this grant application? Has he or a member of his staff read the detailed grant application in TrAMS? Based upon the comments entered by both FTA and MTA staff in TrAMS, you would have an informed up-to-date understanding for project and grant status.

Did Sen. Schumer ever ask the MTA and NYC Transit why they did not include this work as part of the base contract or as an option clause to the previous Canarsie 14th Street Tunnel project completed several years ago? That project was finished several months ahead of schedule and below budget.

The most cost effective time to do any of this additional work Schumer supports would have been when service was shut down during tunnel past reconstruction. The contractor was already on site, mobilized with a staging area for workers, supplies and debris removal. There is little need for NYC Transit to provide expensive Force Account (track employees) Flagging protection for Third Party Construction Contractors workers. Third Rail power can be turned off and there is no active passenger train service. This work could have been added as an option clause or change order to the base construction contract. MTA could have exercised the option at a later date during construction when future funding could have become available. Going back now several years later to attempt this additional work will be more expensive and take longer to complete. Any construction adjacent to 24/7 train service requires extensive expensive NYC Transit Force Account Flagging support.

Interesting how Senator Schumer overlooked a related NY MTA NYC Transit Canarsie line issue. Missing from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's February 23rd Public Hearing for potential Federal Transit Administration funding of their 2021 Program of Projects was $100 million funding to pay for additional capital improvements to the Canarsie L subway line. The FTA will be providing over $1.5 billion under various formula and competitive discretionary grant programs in 2021. This does not include $4 billion under a second and $6.5 billion more under a third round of CARE COVID-19 transit relief assistance. Here is the link to the MTA Public Hearing document https://new.mta.info/document/28146.

Talk about collecting dust -- why has the MTA taken as long as, in some cases, five years and been unsuccessful in applying for the following five old Federal Transit Administration discretionary funded project allocations that would also improve the NYC Transit Canarsie L subway line. Part of the grant application process would be to include these projects in the Public Hearing.2 By not including these projects in the February 23rd Public Hearing, is it the MTA's intent to wait another year before securing these funds?

Sen. Schumer owes a formal apology to the hard working men and women of the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 Office. Next time he is visiting MTA Chairman Pat Foye at his office at 2 Broadway, he should walk across the street to 2 Bowling Green. Stop by the FTA Region 2 Office on the fourth floor. A personal apology to all my former FTA colleagues would be in order. They work very hard day after day to insure every last transit dollar Sen. Schumer assists in authorizing and appropriating is obligated under any approved grant as quickly as possible. Nobody sits around stalling on releasing or letting grants linger collecting dust. They can't, as the FTA stopped using paper grants back in the early 1990s; the grant making process has been automated for decades!

Please don't treat federal employees in the words of the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace who accused them of being "pointy-headed bureaucrats riding to work on a bike in their three-piece suits with a peanut butter sandwich in their briefcase."

They deserve your praise, not your scorn.

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Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions of dollars in grants which provided funding for capital projects and programs to the NY MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, NYC DOT, NJ Transit and more than 30 transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.

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 1. Source: (1) AM Metro New York -- Schumer pushes FTA to give disabled New Yorkers a lift by Dean Moses-- March 28 & (2) New York Daily News -- Schumer pushes FTA to give disabled New Yorkers a lift by Dean Moses -- March 29).
2.  Source: - Prior Years Unobligated Section 5309 Fixed Guideway Capital Investment Grants (CIG) Allocations.NYD2016-CCIP-003 Canarsie Power Improvements $3,200,272, NYD2016-CCIP-14002 New York Canarsie Power Improvements $13,121,114 and NYD2017-CCIP-003 Canarsie Line Power and Station Improvements $83,680,093)
About the Author

Larry Penner

Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously served as a former director for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office of Operations and Program Management. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for New Jersey Transit, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North railroads, MTA Bus, NYCDOT Staten Island Ferry along with 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.

Illustration: Mass Transit; Top: Pepi Stojanovski/Unsplash; Bottom: Maria Oswalt/Unsplash
Dc Funding Mash Up Illustration