By Dean Franks, senior vice president, congressional relations, ARTBA

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao completed the annual dance with congressional spending panels that all department heads undergo in defense of the President’s budget request for the next fiscal year. Both Senate and House transportation appropriations subcommittee members expressed concern during April 12 and 13 hearings about proposed cuts to popular programs for FY 2019. However, Chao countered that the projects traditionally funded through programs like the transit Capital Investment Grants and TIGER multi-modal discretionary grants, “are ideal candidates for the new programs outlined in the President’s infrastructure proposal.”

As part of an exchange with Rep. David Young (R-Iowa) on the Highway Trust Fund’s (HTF) looming revenue crisis in 2020 and possible alternatives to the motor fuel tax, Chao replied: “Unfortunately, I don’t really have a good answer for you on that. We don’t have agreement within the administration on how to proceed.”

In addition to proposing to halt funding for transit capital and TIGER grant programs, the Trump administration’s budget calls for constraining HTF supported spending to what existing revenues could sustain once the most recent infusion of General Fund resources are liquidated. This course of action is estimated to result in highway and transit spending cuts of 40 percent. Read a full synopsis of the FY 2019 budget request here.

As with previous appearances on Capitol Hill, the conversation with Chao on the topic of Gateway—a series of projects around the New York City metropolitan area—got heated at times. The administration is arguing the projects should not be allowed to use federal loan and loan guarantee programs like TIFIA as part of the local share of their project while some members argue that, if the locals have to pay those loans back eventually, this should be part of the state match for these projects.

Secretary Chao made clear as part of her testimony that whatever Congress passes and President Trump signs into law, the department will implement. The FY 2018 appropriations law enacted March 23 boosted spending on TIGER grants and other programs the administration had proposed to gut. However, the administration does have some discretion as to what kind of projects some of these programs support. For example, the TIGER grants that were recently awarded as part of funding for FY 2017 had a more rural emphasis than was seen under the previous Administration. So while the DOT may have to carry out activities the leadership may not fully support, they can definitely shape a program to fulfill some of their own goals.

ARTBA will keep you posted as the FY 2019 appropriations process for the transportation programs moves forward.