/ Featured / Senate Panel Backs Bill That Funds TIGER, Transit Starts Without Highway Program Rescissions

Senate Panel Backs Bill That Funds TIGER, Transit Starts Without Highway Program Rescissions

Parul Dubey on August 2, 2017 - in Featured, Transportation

The Senate Appropriations Committee backed a bill to fund the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 2018 budget year that would increase TIGER infrastructure grants, support new transit capital starts and avoid rescinding any highway program funds.

That puts it in sharp contrast with the version that House appropriators advanced. Their bill would zero out TIGER, make deeper cuts in transit capital grants and rescind $800 million in contract authority from state DOTs’ federal-aid highway funds.

Both measures can now advance to consideration by their full chambers’ members, although news reports indicate the House and Senate may wait to take them up after returning from a summer recess in September. That would give lawmakers only a few weeks to finalize such a spending bill before the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1, or force them to extend current-year funding levels to keep government offices open.

While the House committee’s bill provided more USDOT funding than President Trump proposed, it backed his call to end the TIGER program – for which Congress in recent years has appropriated $500 million annually – and proposed deep cuts in transit capital grants that Trump proposed to eliminate.

The Senate version would fund TIGER at $550 million and trim transit capital grants by less than half the House bill’s number. House appropriators called for a $659 million reduction from 2017 levels, while the Senate bill proposed a $280 million drop.

More highlights of the Senate committee’s bill are available here.

Both bills adhered to spending levels Congress previously authorized for highway programs and transit funding that is disbursed on a formula basis, although the House measure’s rescission could crimp some highway project planning.

Neither bill supported Trump’s proposal to phase out Essential Air Service subsidies to support commercial air travel to and from rural airports, or to implement his plan to take air traffic control out of the Federal Aviation Administration and hand it to a new nonprofit corporation.

And where Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee had criticized the majority’s spending plan, Senate appropriators emphasized that they had carefully negotiated their bipartisan measure.

The committee’s bill includes both USDOT and housing programs. Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said: “Our economy and the well-being of the American people benefit from responsible investments in American infrastructure and community development. This bill continues federal funding to support these objectives.”

He praised the efforts of subcommittee Chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., in shaping the bill. Cochran said they “have worked to balance national priorities within budget constraints.  I am pleased to recommend this bill to the Senate.”

Collins said that “this bipartisan bill is the product of considerable negotiation and compromise, and makes the necessary investments in our nation’s infrastructure, helps to meet the housing needs of the most vulnerable among us, and provides funding for economic development projects that create jobs in our communities. Our bill strikes the right balance between thoughtful investment and fiscal restraint, thereby setting the stage for future economic growth.”

In a report with the bill, the Senate committee also took on the Trump administration’s rationale for trying to change how the federal government helps states pay for transportation projects.

“While the committee fully supports additional spending for our nation’s infrastructure,” the committee said in the accompanying bill report, “it strongly disagrees with the administration’s assertion that providing federal dollars for infrastructure has created, ‘an unhealthy dynamic in which state and local governments delay projects in the hope of receiving federal funds.’ Without federal investment in infrastructure, particularly in our nation’s highway network and transit systems, the ability to move freight across the country and the free movement of people between states with vastly differing abilities to fund infrastructure would be compromised.”

It added: “The committee is also concerned that the administration does not realize that state and local governments, through the statewide transportation improvement program planning process, already determine the ‘right level – and type – of infrastructure investment needed for their communities.'”

And the Senate panel complained that the Trump budget’s long-term deficit forecast relies on stripping Highway Trust Fund annual spending levels to only the amounts covered by dedicated tax revenues, levels that are well below its current annual commitments.

“The budget request assumes that after fiscal year 2020 Highway Trust Fund outlays will be at levels that are supported with existing tax receipts, resulting in an outlay reduction of [$95 million] over fiscal years 2021-2027. The administration’s approach is dangerously close to support for devolution of federal funding provided by the Highway Trust Fund, an idea the committee strongly opposes.”

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