Senate Appropriations Committee Approves Transportation Spending Bill

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The Senate Committee on Appropriations passed a bill yesterday to fund the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development for fiscal year 2018 (which according to the federal calendar begins October 1). The bill funds the Department of Transportation (DOT) at $79.6 billion for FY18 (a $1.5 billion increase from FY17). That total is $1.1 billion more than the House version of the bill and $3.6 billion more than the Trump Administration’s budget request.

The bill was particularly notable on the aviation front, including a $250 million increase in funding for the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and an increase of the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) for the originating airport from $4.50 to $8.50. AIP is an aviation infrastructure-focused grant program paid for out of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which is supported by user fees, fuel taxes, and other similar revenue sources. PFCs are fees airports can collect from departing passengers and use to fund federally-approved capital projects. The current $4.50 PFC cap has not been changed since 2000 and inflation and increased construction costs have cut its real value by more than half. As a result, many airports have substantial infrastructure needs they cannot afford to address, evident in the “D” grade Aviation received in the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. The bill would  require large hub airports that raise their PFC beyond the current cap of $4.50 to give up all their AIP funding (large hubs previously agreed to give up 75% of the AIP money in exchange for raising their PFC to the current cap of $4.50). Increasing both AIP funding and the cap on the PFC are solutions named in the Report Card to improve the grade, so airports of all sizes can address their infrastructure needs.

Other things of note in the Senate FY18 transportation-housing (T-HUD) appropriations bill:

  • Highways and transit receive the full amount of funding from the Highway Trust Fund promised to them in the FAST Act ($44.234 billion for highways and $9.733 for transit).
  • The TIGER grant program is funded at $550 million, a $50 million increase from FY17. The Trump Administration had proposed ending the program, which was originally created by the 2009 stimulus bill to support innovative projects that are difficult to fund through traditional federal programs.
  • The Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Capital Investment Grant program is funded at $2.133 billion, which $280 million below FY17 levels. This was another program the Trump Administration targeted for cuts, proposing to limit FY18 spending to only projects with a full funding grant agreement (i.e. funding already approved projects but not accepting new projects). The Senate again largely ignored those proposed cuts.
  • Amtrak also received the full amount of funding authorized by the FAST Act ($358.4 million for the Northeast Corridor and $1.242 billion for the National Network). The Trump Administration had proposed cutting funding for Amtrak in half and ending subsidies for the long-distance National Network routes (which would likely lead to their shuttering).
  • The Federal Railroad Administration’s new grant programs that were authorized by the FAST Act (Consolidated Rail Grants, Good Repair Partnership Grants, and Restoration/Enhancement Grants) are funded at $123.5 million, far less than their authorized level of $425 million.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) NextGen modernization program received $1.1 billion.
  • The FAA’s Essential Air Service program is funded at $155 million. The program subsidizes flights to 175 rural communities that would otherwise not have regular air service. The White House had proposed eliminating the funding.
  • After adopting amendments from Sens. Hoeven (R-ND) and Shaheen (D-NH), the bill modifies restrictions on truck weights for vehicles travelling on interstates in North Dakota and New Hampshire.

The T-HUD bill (H.R. 3353) passed by the House last week is $1.1 billion smaller than its Senate counterpart, eliminates funding for the TIGER grant program, and cuts funding for the transit capital grant program so only projects with full funding grant agreements can receive funds (both proposals were a part of the President’s budget request). However, the House bill provides $900 million for the New York-New Jersey Gateway Program, a $29 billion set of Amtrak and transit projects including a badly needed new $11 billion tunnel under the Hudson River. The Senate bill has no specific set-aside for the Gateway Program. Both T-HUD bills will now need to be voted on by their respective chambers before being conferenced so the two bodies can agree on bill language before taking final votes and sending a bill to the President’s desk.

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