AASHTO Journal

Trump Budget: End TIGER Grants, Cut Funding for Transit/Amtrak, Privatize Air Traffic Control

In a budget "blueprint" for the 2018 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, President Trump proposed cutting an array of programs that support transportation programs both within and outside of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

This comes as the transportation industry has been looking for Trump to flesh out the 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan he pledged to deliver both on the campaign trail and since taking office.

The proposals in the summary budget document – also called the "skinny budget" that will be followed by more detail later – if approved by Congress would cut 13 percent from overall USDOT discretionary spending.

The plan would eliminate the department's annual "TIGER" infrastructure grant program that Congress most recently funded at $500 million, limit funding for new transit projects and end federal subsidies for Amtrak's long-distance passenger trains outside the lucrative Northeast Corridor.

capitol0816.jpgIt would privatize air traffic control and take it out of the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration, similar to a controversial plan championed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa. The president would also end the FAA's Essential Air Service subsidies that support commercial air travel in smaller, rural communities.

Outside of the USDOT, the budget plan would end Energy Department programs that support development of advanced vehicle technologies, and eliminate a Commerce Department grant program that awards millions of dollars each year to small transportation projects that support local economic development. It would cut $1 billion or 16.3 percent from the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains inland and coastal navigation channels.

The Trump team cautions that its transportation budget proposal must be viewed in a larger context that will see increased investment after the president develops his much-discussed plan to spur $1 trillion of public and private infrastructure project spending over the next decade.

Politico said Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, in a conference call with reporters ahead of the blueprint's release, maintained that the budget's transportation reductions target programs that are "less efficient than the infrastructure package that we're working on for later on this year."

Still, for now at least the administration's initial budget proposes to end or cut numerous programs used across the transportation industry, while the sector waits for that promised investment package to take shape.

Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said: "Actions that result in a reduction to U.S. transportation system investment concern us, so we're anxious to see the president's full infrastructure investment package to put the proposals outlined in this budget in context."

At the American Public Transportation Association, Acting President Richard White said the group is "surprised and disappointed that at the same time the Trump administration is proposing to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure, the White House is recommending cutting billions of dollars from existing transportation and public transit infrastructure programs" in its 2018 budget.

"The federal government currently covers only 43 percent of all capital spending for public transit, " White said, "and any cuts will only add to the significant shortfall that already exists."

In detail, the administration in its budget blueprint said ending the TIGER grants would save $499 million compared with the full-year authorized spending level in the 2017 annualized continuing resolution (which expires April 28).

It said TIGER "awards grants to projects that are generally eligible for funding under existing surface transportation formula programs," and said the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transpiration Act also set aside a grant program for nationally significant freight and highway projects that provides an average of $900 million yearly through 2020.

However, the USDOT has yet to request applications for TIGER grants for 2017, amid uncertainty for that popular program in the temporary 2017 stopgap funding measures, and has so far not issued this year's allotment of $850 million in the separate FAST Act grants that are carved out of the Highway Trust Fund.

The administration said it wants to limit funding for the Federal Transit Administration's Capital Investment Program (also called "new starts") to projects that already have full funding grant agreements in place. "Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects," it said.

The budget proposes to restructure and reduce federal subsidies to Amtrak "to focus resources on the parts of the passenger rail system that provide meaningful transportation options within regions."

It would terminate federal support for Amtrak's long-distance train services, saying they "have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak's operating losses. This would allow Amtrak to focus on better managing its state-supported and Northeast Corridor train services."

The blueprint said it would start "a multi-year reauthorization proposal to shift the air traffic control function of the [FAA] to an independent, non-governmental organization, making the system more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety. This would benefit the flying public and taxpayers overall."

It said the Essential Air Service program "was originally conceived of as a temporary program nearly 40 years ago to provide subsidized commercial air service to rural airports."

But it argued that "EAS flights are not full and have high subsidy costs per passenger. Several EAS-eligible communities are relatively close to major airports, and communities that have EAS could be served by other existing modes of transportation." Zeroing it out would save $175 million from the 2017 annualized CR level, the budget said.

Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.

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