Appropriators on both sides of the aisle expressed misgivings about transportation cuts, air traffic control changes, and funding for the infrastructure plan included in the White House’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget during a subcommittee hearing June 15.
Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee Chair Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said he wants to preserve access for rural airports and rural passenger rail—both of which would face cuts under the administration’s plan—while recognizing the need to pass a “fiscally responsible” budget.
Ranking Member David Price (D-N.C.) called the administration’s budget “draconian” and criticized the “rather vague” nature of the “six-page” infrastructure proposal included in the White House’s proposed budget.
“This is something that has potential, I believe, for bipartisan support, but we don’t have enough to work with,” Price told Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
The June 15 subcommittee hearing allowed appropriators to air bipartisan grievances with President Donald Trump’s call to remove air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration. Shifting air traffic management to a non-governmental advisory board will allow for faster technological advancements, the administration says.
Diaz-Balart told Chao he wants air traffic to stay within the FAA to maintain the public oversight role of Congress for the critical safety function.
Chao pushed back, saying constituents would still have “recourse” with their congressional leaders about safety or noise issues that arise from use of the air space.
Several members of the committee also said they want to keep the nation’s air space open for emerging technologies, like drones and commercial space operations.
Diaz-Balart said the administration’s plan is “like handing the streets over to the taxicab commission right at the time when Uber and Lyft were entering into the market place.”
Additionally, the administration’s proposal calls for turning over the country’s existing air traffic infrastructure free of cost to the new entity, which Price criticized as an “unprecedented give-away of assets.”
After the hearing, Chao told reporters she is working to assuage the concerned members of Congress and air space users, many of whom are “misinformed” about what the change would mean.
The administration wants to tie the air traffic control measure to the FAA reauthorization, which is due by Sept. 30.
“That’s the goal,” said Chao about the September deadline.
The Transportation budget is reduced by 13 percent in the proposed fiscal 2018 budget, which also recommends setting aside $200 billion in new budget authority for a broader infrastructure initiative.
Among the projects facing cuts are grant programs popular in Congress such as the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program and the capital investment grant program or New Starts, which supports transit capital investments.
House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who is not on the subcommittee, came by the hearing to ask Chao how the government would help fund “critical” improvements needed in the Hudson Tunnel spanning New York and New Jersey in the absence of capital investment grants.
Diaz-Balart also took issue with the cuts to New Starts.
“I have concerns about the Administration’s proposal to terminate the Department’s work with local governments on several dozen transit projects that are in the planning and design stage,” Diaz-Balart said.
Chao was unequivocal on the program cuts.
“The administration does not support New Starts,” Chao said.
Chao noted she is aware of the popularity of TIGER grants, which she called “earmark-like” because they are project-specific in nature.
“We would prefer [TIGER projects] would be done within the monies that are available, rather than have it siphoned aside for some specific purpose,” Chao told the committee.
The grant program cuts were previously floated when the administration released its skinny budget as members were debating the FY17 omnibus spending bill. Members rejected cuts in the FY 2017 budget to popular transportation grant programs, instead increasing funding for New Starts and maintaining previous spending levels for TIGER.
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