By Dean Franks, vice president of congressional relations, ARTBA 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx advocated Feb. 24 for substantial increases in federal surface transportation investment at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.  He detailed the Obama Administration’s FY 2017 $98 billion budget proposal—a $21 billion increase from FY 2016—for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Despite calling for a 25 percent increase in highway investment in 2015, the Administration’s new proposal for would hold highway investment at the levels approved in the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act” surface transportation law and boost transit, rail, and alternative transportation funding by $17.9 billion as part of a new “21st Century Clean Transportation Initiative.”  The initiative would focus on reducing the environmental impact of transportation and combatting climate change.  Foxx told subcommittee members the proposal builds on the FAST Act by “taking the next steps to reform funding streams and encourage better planning and projects at the State and regional levels through increased investment in areas such as rail and transit.”  See ARTBA’s analysis of the Administration’s full proposal.

Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) expressed criticism at the overall size of the proposal and its violation of the two-year, bipartisan budget agreement the President signed in 2015. Congressman Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) denounced one of the Administration’s plans to pay for the uptick in spending—a $10.25 per barrel fee on petroleum—as a gas tax increase and kicking the oil industry “when they are down.”

Foxx told Yoder and the rest of the panel that the American people are already paying a much larger hidden tax—the price paid by transportation system users for wasting time in congestion, longer commutes and repairs to cars and trucks damaged by poor road conditions.   Foxx also noted that if elected officials don’t start talking about a permanent Highway Trust Fund (HTF) revenue solution we will soon be back to the days of threatened highway/transit program shut downs.

Subcommittee Ranking Member David Price (D-N.C.) said the FAST Act did not go far enough in terms of investment levels for highway and transit projects.  He also echoed the thoughts of numerous members of Congress from both political parties—the long-term solvency of the HTF would be best dealt with in comprehensive tax and/or budget legislation as opposed to a “one off” proposal.

With last year’s deal between outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Obama on top-level government spending for both FY 2016 and FY 2017, the Administration’s budget request is unlikely to go anywhere, especially in an election year in the Republican-controlled Congress.  ARTBA will continue to work to ensure the annual funding levels agreed to in the FAST Act are met through the FY 2017 appropriations process.