Records obtained by The Guardian show that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) is not eligible for funding of its Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (CABRT) project. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has told PSTA so in writing.
In addition, PSTA has never asked the FTA for inclusion in its budget submission, despite telling the FTA in March of 2016 that it would do so in the summer of 2017. PSTA also never requested a Construction Grant Agreement (CGA), despite telling the FTA that it would do so in the fall of 2018.
“We have essentially completed all of the…basically, every thing that we need to do locally,” PSTA Brad Miller haltingly said in a PSTA committee meeting on February 5th.
Miller was referring to meeting the requirements of the FTA’s Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program funding of PSTA’s controversial CABRT project.
Modifier words like “essentially” and “basically” can raise questions. But less than 3 minutes later, Miller was more definitive when he said “we’re kind of in a waiting period right now. We’re waiting on what is called an allocation announcement” of that CIG funding.
However, in order to be allocated funds, a project first has to be eligible to receive funds. And according to the FTA, the CABRT project is not even eligible to be funded with the $20 million that PSTA has requested from the FTA.
A clue to this state of affairs was found in this January 15 letter in which the FTA told Miller that the CABRT “project must still complete further steps in the CIG program to be eligible for consideration to receive CIG funding.” But maybe that was a standard statement inserted in to every such letter?
Gregory Chilik, an engineer and program manager in the FTA’s Atlanta office, was given as a contact in the letter for further questions. We wrote Chilik and asked: “is that a standard statement put in to all such letters, or are there specific steps that PSTA has yet to complete?”
Chilik responded via e-mail that “to be eligible to be considered for a CIG construction grant, a project sponsor must have completed” various requirements, which Chilik listed. “FTA is currently working with PSTA to complete these requirements.”
In other words, the CABRT is still not eligible to be funded, this almost four years after PSTA entered it in to the so-called Project Development (PD) phase of the CIG Small Starts program.
Immediate past PSTA chair and Pinellas county commissioner Janet Long was also present at that same February 5th meeting. Long said that when she spoke to the FTA administrator in December, “she indicated that in the first couple of months of this year we would probably get the check.”
Long also said that in that December call with the FTA administrator, the top FTA official, Long told her that PSTA had completed nine out of nine FTA requirements for the CABRT project.
Long further claimed that in response, the FTA administrator had agreed with Long’s statement and gushed “oh, I’m so proud of you all, there is nothing left for you to do.” If true, it would raise serious questions about the seriousness of the FTA.
The aforementioned January 15 letter was a so-called “Letter Of No Prejudice” (LONP). It’s a mechanism by which the FTA tells a project sponsor like PSTA that it will reimburse certain specified costs that PSTA wants to go ahead with if, and only if, the FTA later approves the project for funding.
In her annual evaluation of Miller this month, Long appeared confused about what the LONP letter means. Long wrote on page 5 of that evaluation of the “enormous amount of work it has taken us to get to this phase of obtaining our federal funds –which as you know, we already received our preliminary letter allowing us to move forward with construction.”
However, the LONP letter was not “preliminary,” there is no such thing. It took the FTA three months to issue it after PSTA requested it.
There was box on page 5 for “Recommended CEO pay increase.” Long did not fill it out.
After receiving FTA program manager Chilik’s e-mail, we asked him via phone what eligibility requirements PSTA has not yet met. Chilik declined to provide details. “It’s not that it’s a secret process, but we want to be very specific with the information we give,” Chilik said. He referred us to FTA’s public affairs office, who called us and said that they would get back to us as soon as possible.
Arthur Penny, mayor of South Pasadena said that he is not surprised that PSTA did not get funded this year, but that he is surprised to learn that they are not eligible for FTA CIG funding. St. Pete Beach city commissioner Melinda Pletcher said she was also surprised, both had thought that the project had been in eligible status for some time.
“I’m not surprised that they’re not eligible for FTA funding because PSTA has not been very forthcoming,” said South Pasadena vice mayor Gail Neidinger.
In order to further probe the reasons for the CABRT’s ineligibility for FTA funding, The Guardian made this public records request to PSTA. We cited the aforementioned FTA letter and asked for records showing what those “further steps” are that PSTA must take.
To be certain that PSTA understood that we weren’t just asking for records that came from the FTA, but any records showing those “further steps,” we modified our records request to say just that.
PSTA public records coordinator replied that their “response is still the same,” namely that they have no such records.
Thus while PSTA’s shiny new
object project still isn’t eligible for FTA funding, PSTA claims to not have any records to show what steps they have to take in order to become eligible. State and local funding is contingent upon FTA funding, so without it, the project is dead.
Upwards $10 million of local funds has already been spent on the CABRT project.
In Miller’s March 2016 letter to the FTA requesting entry of the CABRT into the FTA’s Project Development phase, there is a timeline on page 5. It said that PSTA would ask the FTA for inclusion in its budget submission in the summer of 2017, and it would also request a Construction Grant Agreement (CGA) in the fall of 2018.
However, the response to our public records showed that PSTA has never done either.
We did not ask PSTA questions in preparing this article because they have never answered questions from The Guardian before. In this case, it was also not necessary, because the CABRT’s funding ineligibility speaks for itself.
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