Senate panel approves funding boost for Transportation Department

Senate panel approves funding boost for Transportation Department

A Senate panel approved a funding boost for the Department of Transportation (DOT) on Thursday, moving ahead with spending plans that reject what President Trump had envisioned for the agency.

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously backed legislation that would provide nearly $19.5 billion in discretionary funding for the DOT in fiscal 2018 — which is $978 million above current levels and nearly $3.3 billion more than what Trump requested.

Across the Capitol, the House spending panel passed a bill that would cut DOT’s budget by $646 million, for a 3.7 percent decrease.

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The Senate bill also would provide $550 million for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, which would be a $50 million increase.

The program was set up by the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus package to provide an extra injection of cash for surface transportation projects, but it was never authorized by Congress. The grants are a popular funding tool among cities and states because of their wide range of eligibility.

Trump proposed killing the program in his budget request, which the House followed through with in their spending bill.

But Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program A bipartisan bridge opens between the House and Senate Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate subcommittee on transportation and housing, said it was important to increase funding for the grant program given the poor condition of the nation’s infrastructure.

She was heard on a hot mic earlier in the week calling the administration’s approach to its budget proposal “incredibly irresponsible.”

“This bill rejects the shortsighted budget that was put forward by President Trump,” Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyMaxine Waters to Sessions: 'Time to go back to the plantation' Franken has 'a lot of questions' for Sessions on Russia contacts Senate Dems demand Sessions testify after Papadopoulos plea deal MORE (D-Vt.), ranking member on the full committee, said Thursday.

Notably, the spending legislation would lift a federal cap on the fee that airports can charge passengers in order to pay for airport infrastructure projects. The $4.50 cap on the so-called Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) would be raised to $8.50 under the measure.

Airports and travel advocates have long pushed lawmakers to remove or raise the cap, which they say will enable them to better modernize their facilities without having to call on the federal government for financial help.

“It is often said that the Appropriations Committee is where the rubber meets the road and today the rubber met the runway,” said Todd Hauptli, president and CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives. “Airports are excited that help is on the way."

But the language is likely to face some pushback in Congress. The airline industry has staunchly opposed raising the PFC cap, which they argue will create an unfair burden on passengers.

“Adding another $3.2 billion tax hike on American travelers simply cannot be justified,” said Nicholas E. Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America. “The truth of the matter is that airports are flush with cash.”

The panel rejected the White House’s proposal to eliminate long-distance routes for Amtrak and kill an Essential Air Service program for rural communities, with both funded at their fully authorized levels under the Senate bill.

The legislation also would allow $45 billion from the Highway Trust Fund to be spent on the Federal-Aid Highways Program, provide $1.1 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration’s modernization program, and provide $2.1 billion for the Capital Investment Grant transit program — another area Trump had targeted for cuts.