House panel backs bill to slash Transportation funding

House panel backs bill to slash Transportation funding
© Greg Nash

A House panel approved legislation late Monday evening that would slash funding for the Department of Transportation (DOT) after rejecting a Democratic effort to add a $200 billion infrastructure package to the bill.

In a 31-20 vote, the House Appropriations Committee backed a spending measure to provide $17.8 billion in discretionary funding for the DOT in fiscal 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.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), ranking member on the subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development, offered an amendment that would provide $200 billion to upgrade the country’s roads, rails, airports, ports and other public works.

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The move was designed to highlight the lack of progress on Trump’s yet-to-be-unveiled infrastructure package, which officials have said will inject $200 billion in federal dollars to the country’s transportation system. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to make the issue a 100-day priority.

“We were assured by the president that infrastructure would be a priority, yet a plan for infrastructure keeps getting pushed back, back, back,” Price said. “Believe me, this country ... might even conclude we’re putting our money where our mouth is” if the panel adopted the amendment.

But Republicans rebuffed Price’s proposal on the basis that it would cause the spending legislation to go over its funding allocation — a common rebuttal to Democratic amendments that were offered on Monday.

“If this were adopted, it would prevent this bill from going to the floor,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation subcommittee.

Democrats have criticized Trump for promising massive investments in infrastructure while also proposing cuts for the DOT in his budget request.

The House DOT spending measure doesn’t exactly mirror the White House’s budget proposal, but it does fulfill some components. The bill would entirely eliminate the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, which Trump proposed killing in his budget request.

The $500 million a year program, which was created by the Obama administration but was never actually authorized by Congress, is a popular funding tool among cities and states because of its wide range of eligibility.  

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who called out a number of lawmakers whose districts benefited from a TIGER grant, unsuccessfully tried to attach an amendment to the spending bill to restore funding for the program.

“We cannot eliminate one of the most important tools we have to improve our roads, our rails and other transportation modes,” she said.

Diaz-Balart emphasized that the program has never been authorized and was not requested by the administration.

“Frankly, it’s unclear how DOT would choose to prioritize funding for such programs,” he said. “And we had to make choices. So instead, this bill provides significant increases for authorized infrastructure programs.”

The DOT spending bill also reduces funding for the Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program, known as New Starts, by $660 million, bringing its total funding to $1.75 billion. The panel rejected another amendment from Price that would have restored funding for the transit program.

The committee also rejected a proposal from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the full panel, to provide $199 million for a train safety technology known as positive train control, which all railroads will eventually be required to install.

Diaz-Balart pointed out that the last highway bill already included $199 million for the automated technology.

“We approved the full $199 million,” he said. “So at this stage, I cannot support this amendment.”

Appropriators ensured that $900 million from New Starts and the money leftover from cutting TIGER grants would go toward 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 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.

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

And it 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.

Price offered an amendment, which was rejected, that would have removed the trucking language and other policy riders.

“The majority seems to regard this bill as some kind of a court of appeals for trucking issues,” he said. “That’s not our role.”