By David Bauer, senior vice president of government relations, ARTBA
The Senate Appropriations Committee June 25 approved by a vote of 20-10 legislation that would maintain the current $40.3 billion level of federal highway investment in FY 2016—which begins Oct. 1—and cut transit funding by $400 million to $10.5 billion.
These investment levels, however, are contingent on a reauthorization or another short-term extension of the federal highway and transit programs and separate action to generate sufficient new revenues for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Appropriations bills are required annually to fund all federal agencies—including those within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)—and are a counterpart to bills that reauthorize the highway and public transportation programs.
The Senate transportation funding measure would continue public transportation formula funds at the $8.6 billion FY 2015 level, but cut transit capital grants by $535 million. The bill would maintain TIGER Grant funding at $500 million—the program allows the U.S. DOT to award grants to a variety of intermodal transportation infrastructure projects. The proposal also continues Airport Improvement Program funding at $3.35 billion.
The Senate plan would prevent funds being used for the Obama Administration’s initiatives to allow states to impose geographic, economic and other hiring preferences on federal-aid highway and transit contracts unless the state or local government certifies: a sufficient qualified labor pool exists in the jurisdiction; no jobs of existing employees are displaced; and any associated cost increase would not lead to delays in transportation plans. ARTBA and AGC of America sought this provision.
While the House of Representatives passed its version of the FY 2016 transportation funding measure June 10, the Senate Appropriations Committee-approved measure is not likely to come before the full Senate in the near future. Senate Democrats have vowed to block all appropriations bills because they believe the chamber’s Republican majority has set the level of total discretionary spending too low. Senate Republicans engaged a similar strategy in 2013 when they felt Democrats—who were in the majority at that time—were pushing discretionary spending levels that were too high. The 2013 disagreement was ultimately resolved by a two-year, bipartisan budget agreement.
Republicans—who now control both chambers—are resisting Democratic calls for a similar budget negotiation between the two parties and note the House and Senate have both approved FY 2016 budget plan. With the White House threatening to veto all FY 2016 spending bills and the Senate being tied up in knots, next year’s transportation appropriations bill is caught up in a familiar macro-budget battle between the two parties—at least for now.