$1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan Takes Shape in Budget

By Shaun Courtney

Transportation and infrastructure projects would see a reduced federal footprint in both regulation and funding under President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget and an accompanying infrastructure principles document released May 23.

Federal transportation spending would be cut by 13 percent, though the plan recommends setting aside $200 billion in new budget authority for a broader infrastructure initiative. The OMB projects $5 billion in outlays from that initiative in fiscal 2018, with the balance being spent out through fiscal 2026.

The budget released today reiterates proposals the administration laid out earlier this year in its “skinny” budget, including elimination of the popular TIGER grant program, an end to funding for long-haul Amtrak routes and the termination of federal subsidies for commercial passenger air service to rural airports through the Essential Air Service program.

New in the document is a preview of how the administration anticipates achieving the $1 trillion infrastructure investment the president announced during a speech before Congress earlier this year. The infrastructure fact sheet raises the prospect of expanding tolling on highways, allowing private companies to build and maintain interstate rest stops and expanding a program that provides loans for surface transportation projects.

“The goal is to see long-term reform on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered and maintained,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters in a call May 23.

Chao said her agency will provide the “seed” money to encourage non-federal investment.

“The federal government will do its fair share,” Chao said.

Reaction to Transportation Cuts

Many of the programs facing cuts under the proposed Trump budget are popular with members of Congress.

For instance the budget would eliminate funding for Capital Improvement Grants, which support transit capital investments, beyond those already in the transit administration’s pipeline. Local and state governments would be fully responsible for future public transit programs under the plan. Senate Democrats specifically called for the program to be retained in a May 22 letter to Chao.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that the cuts to Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants suggest Trump is not serious about investing in infrastructure. The TIGER program enjoys bipartisan support.

“TIGER grants provide funding for important infrastructure projects that make transportation safer and create jobs,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a member of a Senate subcommittee responsible for mass transit, told Bloomberg BNA in a statement. “As we discuss how to improve our nation’s infrastructure, I will continue to make certain the Administration is aware of what a vital role the TIGER grant program plays in infrastructure funding.”

Passenger rail supporters criticized plans to cut funding for long distance rail service on Amtrak and vowed to lobby Congress to restore funding.

“Having just seen members of Congress thoroughly reject these cuts in the FY2017 budget in April, we’re disappointed to have to fight this same battle so soon,” National Association of Railroad Passengers Chair Peter LeCody, said in a release.

Congressional leaders of both parties made it clear the president’s budget proposal was being received as a wish list, rather than an order.

“Funding decisions are ultimately in the hands of Congress,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), senior member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, said in a statement.

ATC Exit

Trump’s proposal also endorses an overhaul of the federal air traffic control program, which would involve stripping the function from the Federal Aviation Administration and creating a new non-governmental body to oversee it.

The air traffic proposal reflects a plan being touted by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), which has faced skepticism among appropriators focused on transportation, as well as from senators.

Chao said the “multiyear effort” would “modernize” the country’s air traffic control operations, while keeping the safety role firmly within the FAA.

Principles for Infrastructure

Chao responded to calls for more information on the president’s infrastructure plan with a promise May 15 that a statement of “principles” would be forthcoming. The fact sheet that accompanied the president’s budget is the start of a conversation Chao expects to have with policymakers and stakeholders in the months to come, she said in a call with reporters May 23.

The four key principles call for the federal government to:

  •  Make targeted federal investments
  •  Encourage self-help
  •  Align infrastructure investment with entities best suited to provide sustained and efficient investment
  •  Leverage the private sector
“I think they are simple and yet quite profound,” Chao said in a call with reporters.

The principles reflect the administration’s desire for state and local governments, and the private sector to play a bigger role in improving the nation’s infrastructure.

“We would hope also to provide more details as time goes on,” she said.

A full legislative package should be ready by the third quarter, Chao reiterated.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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