House panel approves transportation funding cuts

House panel approves transportation funding cuts
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A House panel approved legislation on Tuesday evening that would cut funding for the Department of Transportation (DOT) by over half a billion dollars.

After a swift meeting, the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development advanced a spending bill by voice vote to provide $17.8 billion in discretionary funding for the DOT in the fiscal year 2018.

That figure is $646 million less than current levels — a 3.7 percent decrease — but is $1.5 billion more than what President Trump requested for the agency.

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“The Chairman was dealt a very difficult hand, and as a result, we are not investing enough in our housing and transportation infrastructure to maintain it, let alone expand it,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), ranking member on the panel.

The spending measure would entirely eliminate the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, which was created by the Obama administration but never actually authorized by Congress. It’s a popular funding tool among cities and states because of its wide range of eligibility.  

House Republicans have long targeted the program for cuts, and Trump proposed killing TIGER grants in his budget request. The House DOT appropriations bill would zero out the $500 million a year program.

“It seems the program’s only fault, in the view of its critics, is that it was established by President Obama,” Price said.

The DOT spending bill also reduces funding for the for the Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program, known as New Starts, by $660 million, bringing its total allocation to $1.75 billion.

But appropriators ensured that $900 million from New Starts and the money leftover from cutting TIGER would go towards a critical rail-and-tunnel project in the Northeast.

Supporters of the so-called Gateway Program — which was developed to rehab the passenger rail connection between New York and New Jersey — have questioned Trump’s commitment to the project, which the states, Amtrak and Obama administration all agreed to help fund.

But the DOT recently withdrew from the program’s board of trustees and Trump proposed limiting funding for New Starts in a way that would have excluded Gateway, alarming advocates of the project.

Lawmakers on Tuesday praised the House DOT spending bill, however, for ensuring that federal dollars will flow towards the program.

While congressional earmarks are banned, appropriators can still get creative in how they carve out and funnel funding allocations. The administration can also specifically request funding for projects.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the full panel, said the program “is so important for my constituents in New York, and the economy of the Northeast region, and the nation as a whole.”

The rest of the DOT spending bill would allow $45 billion from the Highway Trust Fund to be spent on the Federal-Aid Highways Program, provide $1 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration’s modernization program and prohibit funding for high-speed rail in California.

It rejects Trump's proposal to eliminate Essential Air Service and fully maintains the program, which helps provide air service in small and rural communities.

The measure also would prevent states from implementing their own meal and rest breaks for truckers, a controversial provision that Democrats have been fighting to keep out of transportation and aviation bills.

And it includes $100 million in new funding for automated vehicle research and development, which Congress has been increasingly focused on.

“As we learned in our ‘Emerging Technologies’ hearing earlier this year, autonomous cars and trucks have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives and this investment will give DOT the tools it needs to keep pace with this exciting innovation,” said Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).