Stewards of public transportation and rail systems throughout the U.S. are facing both certain deadlines for installing positive train control (PTC) systems and uncertainty regarding the future of grants due to a proposed budget that has left some projects in limbo.

With a deadline for installing PTC looming at the end of this year, 12 railroads are at risk of not meeting it, said Ronald Batory, Federal Railroad Administrator. Commuter railroads need to have a demonstration segment up and running,  with two more years to complete the installation and one year to “iron out the wrinkles,” he told attendees of the American Public Transportation Association’s annual rail meeting last month in Denver. After 2021, the FRA will assess fines.

Matt Welbes, executive director of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), noted that 14 states out of 30 so far have achieved compliance with a mandate to establish transit safety oversight programs. He said that Congress had approved $34 billion in transit funding for FY2018, including $3 billion for repairing and upgrading existing transit infrastructure. The FTA has published a final rule regarding public-private partnerships (P3) for transit projects and will consider ways to expedite them, he said.

But the president’s proposed FY2019 federal budget would affect nearly $52 billion worth of transit capital projects across the country that have yet to get full funding, as well as “Small Starts” federal grant agreements already in place. The budget also would remove $20 billion from the Capital Improvement Grants (CIG) program offered through the FTA.

“Things were moving along great” until the current administration, noted David Vizzolo, vice president with HDR Inc. Despite the president’s proposal, he noted that the current Fixing America’s Surface Transportation act is effective through FY2020, and “there is historic bipartisan support for transit and CIG programs” in Congress.

Nevertheless, “some projects are stuck due to uncertainty,” he added. They include a Seattle transit extension and planned streetcar systems in Santa Ana, Calif., Tampa, Fla., and Sacramento.

The funding situation could be a setback for U.S. streetcar systems, which “are growing up and evolving into transit networks,” said Vizzolo on another panel.  In less than 20 years, 11 new systems have been built, with another dozen underway.

One of the most ambitious planned systems would come to Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Navy Yard. The planned 16-mile P3 project must navigate a 34-ft right-of-way, 14-ft-radius turns and take into account a potential 3-ft sea level rise, said Adam Giambrone, director of the Brooklyn Queens Connector Streetcar Project.

Welbes and Batory both tried to reassure transit advocates about the federal funding situation. Welbes acknowledged “a $90-billion backlog that is increasing daily” in current transit infrastructure need. Batory said he was “confident” that “we’ll ultimately deliver improved infrastructure.” He then encouraged audience members to consider government jobs in transportation.

By Aileen Cho in Denver