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WASHINGTON — The country’s vast network of freight and commuter corridors across rural areas are receiving newfound attention under the Trump administration, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao insisted during a meeting with senators March 4.
“After a period of great neglect, we are finally beginning to address the needs of rural America,” Chao told the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.
In written remarks to the subcommittee, the secretary explained the administration’s proposal to update programs in a 2015 highway law would address rural-centric concerns. Tucked in a fiscal 2021 budget request, the administration outlined a 10-year, $810 billion reauthorization of a 2015 highway law. The law, called the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST) Act, expires in September.
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In-depth information about that highway reauthorization, which is expected to address a thorny highway funding matter, has not been revealed. As Chao said, “The administration is now looking at the surface reauthorization act. And, we’re actually working through legislative language through the clearance process within the executive branch.”
At the hearing, subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressed concern over the administration’s lack of a proposal for a specific source of funding for highway programs. The senator would go on to inform colleagues, “I know the administration is working very closely with the authorizing committees in this regard.”
A transportation authorizing committee in the House is expected to reveal a multiyear highway policy bill this month. A similar committee in the Senate advanced its version last summer.
Congress has yet to legislate on the federal Highway Trust Fund, which DOT uses to assist states with maintenance and construction projects. The account relies on insufficient revenue from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax. Those rates were set in 1993.
Responding to Republicans about hours-of-service policy for truckers, Chao indicated the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration had sent a final rule on HOS changes to the White House. The final rule follows a proposed rulemaking from Aug. 14 to allow truckers to have additional flexibility with their 30-minute rest break and with dividing time in the sleeper berth.
On the matter of the annual budget request, the transportation funding committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, noted his criticism. “There is, I think, inadequate commitment to surface transportation,” he told the secretary. Other Senate Democrats shared their disappointment with the secretary over proposed funding reductions for passenger rail and infrastructure projects in the Northeast.
Under the budget request, DOT would receive $21.6 billion in discretionary spending, a 13% decrease from the 2020 enacted level. Mandatory contract authority and obligation limitations would receive $66.2 billion, an 8% increase from the 2020 enacted level. For the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the request would provide nearly a 4% increase from the previous year. Infrastructure and freight grants would each receive $1 billion.
Last year, DOT pressed ahead with an initiative called Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success, or ROUTES. Officials said its objective is to enhance connectivity and safety, as well as access for grant funding and loan programs. According to the department, two-thirds of rail freight originates in rural areas, and about half of truck vehicle-miles-traveled occurs on rural corridors.
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