President Trump proposed a budget for the 2018 fiscal year that would both launch the start of a 10-year program of additional infrastructure investment while making cuts in a wide number of federal programs favored by transportation stakeholders.
For the main highway and transit programs under the Highway Trust Fund, the budget for the first year would hold to levels Congress authorized in 2015 through the Fixing American’s Surface Transportation Act – $44.234 billion in obligation authority for the highway program and $9.733 billion for transit formula grants.
However, after the 2018 budget year that starts Oct. 1 it would cap their funding in 2019 and 2020 at the 2018 level instead of providing the modest annual increases the FAST Act authorized.
The Trump budget also proposed cutting transit, passenger rail and grant programs outside the trust fund, plus rural aviation support, grants to replace old diesel engines, navigation programs and others.
In addition, beyond the 2020 expiration of the FAST Act the president’s budget assumes that HTF cash outlays will be limited to dedicated trust fund excise tax receipts, for an estimated 40 percent cut in obligation authority for the federal-aid highway program in 2021, and zeroing out transit formula grants through 2023.
Although lawmakers from both parties in Congress have pronounced the president’s budget as “dead on arrival,” indicating they will mainly ignore it as they write their own funding measures, the president could defend at least some of his proposals.
His budget would end the TIGER infrastructure grant program that the Department of Transportation has used to help fund a wide range of projects from roads and railroad track separation bridges to port improvements, freight and passenger rail upgrades and bike trails or walk paths. Congress has funded it at $500 million annually in recent years.
The budget plan would largely terminate the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes passenger service to rural airports, end support of transit “new starts” projects that don’t already have full grant agreements in place, stop paying Amtrak for its long-distance train routes outside the Northwest Corridor, reduce Army Corps of Engineers navigation program funding, sharply reduce an EPA grant program to replace old diesel engines on transportation and other equipment and kill a Commerce Department grant program that often aids transportation projects in support of economic development.
It also calls for levying a new lockage fee on barge traffic along the inland waterways, something barge operators have stoutly resisted in the past even as they advocated and accepted higher barge fuel taxes in a recent water projects bill. Trump proposes increasing interstate highway tolling and commercializing on-highway rest areas, something the travel plaza industry has long fought against.
Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said AASHTO is “encouraged” by the infrastructure investment plan portion of the budget package.
“However,” Wright said, “the administration’s assumption that the $17 billion annual Highway Trust Fund shortfall will not be addressed after FAST Act expiration is a great concern, along with large reductions in general fund programs authorized by the FAST Act in 2018.
“As we urge the administration to ensure robust and sustainable federal funding support for transportation in its infrastructure package, we look forward to identifying solutions that reduce regulatory barriers to project delivery and improve program efficiency while maintaining our commitment to environmental stewardship and quality of life.”