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March 13, 2017 3:15 AM, EDT

Hill Transportation Leaders Push Back on Trump’s Road Funding Approach

Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee

This story appears in the March 13 print edition of Transport Topics.

Senior funding leaders in the Senate rejected the White House’s intention to rely on private sector dollars for infrastructure projects, joining transportation leaders in Congress who already are concerned about coming up with funding for rural roads and bridges.

The senators’ pushback March 8 of public-private partnerships marked the fourth time this year hearings on transportation took aim at a Trump administration that has been eager to connect private sector capital with transportation agencies around the states.

President Trump intends to unveil details of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan when he presents a fiscal 2018 budget to Congress this week. He called for the plan’s passage during his address to Congress.

“One of my major concerns will be to make sure that rural states are not left behind and that the focus is not on splashy, large infrastructure projects in urban areas,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), told reporters after a March 8 hearing of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

“What works well for one state doesn’t necessarily work well for another,” added Collins, chairwoman of the subcommittee, who said she’s unsure how to advance an infrastructure bill while the chamber debates health-care policy and a Supreme Court nominee.

In a forthcoming meeting with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Collins said she would outline the subcommittee’s vision for maintaining a robust federal role in freight and passenger transportation sectors. She also would caution the administration on looking to the private sector to set up tolling facilities around the country.

At the hearing, Collins’ colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, shared her sentiment.

“President Trump says that he wants to invest in infrastructure, but those words are ringing hollow,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee. “Without providing any real detail, he says he will use tax incentives to engage the private sector in fixing our infrastructure problems. But instead of accomplishing a fair system, this plan will punish rural America and leave rural states and regions to struggle in keeping up with urban America.”

Earlier this year, Republican Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, and John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairmen of the committees on freight and surface transportation, respectively, shot down Trump’s infrastructure funding intentions.

Public-private partnerships, or P3s, “do not work for rural areas,” Barrasso said.

Groups representing state departments of transportation and the business sector told senators March 8 to consider increasing taxes on fuel to pay for highway projects. The federal taxes have not been raised since 1993, causing a need to supplement a federal transportation account with nonhighway dollars.

“The gas tax is very efficient. It served the program very well for the past 50 years, and it’s something, I think, Congress should continue to look at,” said Jim Tymon, chief operating officer at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“It comes down to political courage,” added Ed Mortimer, transportation director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “I know some members here have signed a pledge saying they didn’t want to raise revenue for anything. I think our belief is everyone needs to come into Congress as elected officials with an open mind, and we need to look at this.”

The taxes stand at 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel and 18.4 cents for gasoline. Improved fuel economy in recent years has cut into the requisite revenue for the Highway Trust Fund.

Aside from concerns over the prospects of fighting the White House over urban-centric funding options for highway programs, such as tolls, Collins also speculated that Trump’s upcoming budget request would deny funding for federal grants for infrastructure projects.

“I fully expect when we get the budget, that we may well see the TIGER grant program slashed,” she said, adding after the hearing, “I’m just worried based on what I’ve read. “It has been extraordinarily popular. The number of applications for TIGER grants far exceeds the amount of funding. So, I’m concerned about that.”

Administration officials have offered no indication about the future of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants. Despite garnering support from state and local officials, Republican leaders sought to deny significant funding for the program throughout the Obama administration.

At their conference in January, the U.S. Conference of Mayors called on the Trump administration to keep the grants.

Recent TIGER grant winners included the Little Rock (Arkansas) Port Authority, a freight mobility project along U.S. 169 in Scott County, Minnesota, and a freight rail project in South Carolina.

Since the Obama administration came up with the infrastructure grants in 2009, the program has distributed $5.1 billion for 421 projects. State and municipal officials have utilized TIGER funds for financing small rural projects and large-scale highway expansions aimed at promoting commerce and livability.