Feds start making good on Trump's threat to defund 'anarchist' cities

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a news conference at Bellevue Hospital in New York on March 10, 2020. - Luiz C. Ribeiro/New York Daily News/TNS

NEW YORK — In an obscure Federal Transit Administration document issued a week ago, the agency appears to be making good on President Donald Trump’s threat to defund cities that he tarred as “anarchist jurisdictions” because they didn’t put down civil rights protests and violence quickly enough.

The document, an FTA notice of funding opportunity, appears to be the first and so far only notice in the federal government’s public document database that references Trump’s Sept. 2 memo threatening to cut funding to big cities.

The notice was published on Oct. 8 to alert local governments of a $10 million federal grant to develop ways to improve “the operational efficiency of transit agencies, as well as enhance the mobility of transit users affected by the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

The notice notes that the FTA’s umbrella agency, the U.S. Transportation Department, “will review and consider applications for funding pursuant” to Trump’s memo.

That memo called out New York City, Seattle, Portland and Washington, D.C., as “anarchist jurisdictions,” which would mean that three of those cities could potentially be excluded from consideration for the FTA’s COVID grant. D.C. was subsequently removed from the list in a directive issued by U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr.

New York City was the epicenter of COVID-19 cases last spring and among the hardest hit in the country. The MTA is now in dire financial straits due to a steep decline in ridership and is facing decades of increased debt if a federal stimulus package doesn’t come through.

In the broad sense, a $10 million grant wouldn’t be a significant help to an agency like the MTA, but it may signal further attempts to deny New York, other cities and agencies like the MTA federal funding.

In September, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s top attorney, Corporation Counsel James Johnson, said they would fight Trump in court if he attempted to follow through on his memo.

“We are preparing to and will be prepared to fight this in court, if ultimately — because this has to go through a number of steps — he actually takes concrete steps to withdraw federal funds,” Johnson said at a Sept. 21 press briefing.

The FTA’s notice seems to be at least one concrete step toward making good on the president’s promise.

If former Vice President Joe Biden defeats Trump in the upcoming election, the president’s memo is likely to become a moot point. If he doesn’t, the directive could have serious consequences for New Yorkers and residents in other cities.

The potential exclusion of the MTA from the federal COVID-19 transportation grant is unusual given the fact that New York City is home to a majority of the nation’s public transit riders — and saw 131 MTA workers die from the virus, more than any other transit agency in the country.

Transportation consultant Sam Schwartz, who worked for the city Transportation Department in the 1980s and 1990s, said the language effectively bars the MTA from receiving the grant.

“I was in government for 20 years,” Schwartz said. “If you see any kind of bias, you don’t bother submitting. Why would New York waste its energy on this?”

MTA officials said they had not yet decided whether they would apply for the grant — and were reviewing whether Trump’s anarchist memo applies to the agency because it’s run by the state. Trump’s memo is directed at New York City specifically.

Aside from calling out the Big Apple and other cities by name, the memo also directs the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to issue guidance to federal agencies “on restricting the eligibility of or otherwise disfavoring, to the maximum extent permitted by law, anarchist jurisdictions in the receipt of Federal grants.”

The deadline to issue that guidance was Oct. 2, but no sign of it appears on the OMB website, and the agency did not immediately respond to questions about it.

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