House appropriators advanced a 2018 Department of Transportation spending bill that would eliminate TIGER infrastructure grants, make up to $900 million available for Amtrak Gateway projects in New York City, curb other new transit project funding and strip state DOTs of $800 million in highway program contract authority.
In all, the measure would cut USDOT discretionary spending by $646 million from the level Congress approved for 2017, to $17.8 billion, with cuts to transit and the TIGER grants that Congress in recent years has funded at $500 million annually.
The action on TIGER continues a pattern of recent years in which the House tries to zero out the program, and the Senate adds it back in. Up to now the grants have survived negotiations to be included in final legislation, but this year the president also proposed ending the program.
The House subcommittee’s bill would maintain funding for the Essential Air Service program that many state DOTs support to subsidize commercial air travel to rural and smaller airports, and increase overall aviation program funding by $153 million to $16.6 billion.
Rail programs would increase $360 million to $2.2 billion. Maritime Administration funding would fall by $31.9 million to $490.6 million.
The bill now awaits action by the full committee, and then by the House. Senate appropriators have not yet drawn up their 2018 USDOT spending measure. However, CQ News later reported that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs that body’s transportation appropriations panel, said her subcommittee was drafting a 2018 spending bill that would include TIGER grants.
Lawmakers from both chambers would need to negotiate differences between the two versions before passing a final USDOT funding bill for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
The House committee said it would appropriate $45 billion to federal-aid highway programs for a gain of $968 million from 2017, in keeping with the five-year surface transportation authorization law Congress passed in 2015.
However, it also proposed to rescind, on Nov. 30, $800 million of accumulated but as yet unspent contract authority from states’ highway programs, on top of an $857 million rescission Congress already imposed this summer for the 2017 budget year.
If the committee’s 2018 appropriations bill became law, that would mean state DOTs would have had to give up $1.657 billion of built-up contract authority in two rounds over just five months.
Joung Lee, policy director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, told the AASHTO Journal that states have accumulated the unused contract authority because Congress in the past often set annual highway program obligation limits below the authorized contract levels.
States could still use that contract authority to their advantage, despite the lower annual limits, by shifting more of their accumulated spending authority into the various highway account categories they were more likely to use. However, in applying the rescissions Congress has exempted certain categories, forcing state DOTs to take all of the cuts out of account balances they may prefer to use, including the main ones that pay for new highway construction on the federal-aid system.
The House committee’s bill would cut transit spending by $662 million from this year to provide $11.75 billion, and limit the federal share of “new starts” transit projects to 50 percent.
Eno Transportation Weekly reported the bill would make up to $900 available for the Gateway program – to improve train travel through the Northeast Corridor – in two ways. It includes $500 million for an NEC “state of good repair” rail grant program, and $400 million for new transit projects that provide both public transportation and inner-city passenger rail service.
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