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WASHINGTON — At a hearing with House lawmakers, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said President Donald Trump’s legislative vision for the country’s highway system — which the White House intends to share with Congress — is being finalized. The plan is central to the president’s infrastructure agenda and is expected to be revealed before a key highway law expires this fall.
“The administration’s detailed legislative language is currently under review within the administration,” Chao said Feb. 27, addressing members of the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. “Once that process is complete and legislation is submitted, the department will be free to discuss its contents in full detail.”
A White House document published Feb. 10 that accompanied DOT’s fiscal 2021 budget request to Congress proposed $1 trillion for infrastructure programs, backed by direct federal investments. The infrastructure proposal indicated that it included a 10-year, $810 billion surface transportation reauthorization measure. Additionally, $190 billion would target connectivity concerns across corridors, water programs, and broadband accessibility. Specificity on funding metrics were not provided.
Congressional policymakers are scrambling to reauthorize the 2015 FAST Act highway law that expires Sept. 30. At issue is disagreement over a path forward for ensuring long-term funding for highway systems.
Addressing the secretary at the hearing, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the subcommittee’s chairman, picked apart the president’s nod to surface transportation.
“The plan lacks significant details about policy, programs and, most importantly, how we pay for it,” said Price. “It’s one thing to keep your options open, but with the expiration of the FAST Act already upon us, the president needs to get serious about negotiating with Congress and finding new revenue for the infrastructure that virtually everyone agrees is necessary for our shared prosperity.”
Democrats on the transportation policy committee intend to consider a highway reauthorization bill this spring. However, neither the House nor the Senate have addressed the Highway Trust Fund’s looming insolvency. The congressional tax-writing committees have not scheduled legislative hearings about the account, which is at the heart of the funding debate.
Price also took aim at the president’s budget request, noting its discretionary aspect amounted to a reduction from last year. As he put it, “A strange move for a president who has posed as a champion of infrastructure.”
Nita Lowey via C-SPAN
Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) also pointed to the absence of a spending proposal for roads, bridges and transit via the Highway Trust Fund. “This budget request does not reflect the good work I think we can do together,” Lowey noted.
However, according to Chao, “When one looks at the whole picture, including trust fund programs, the president’s [fiscal] 2021 budget request recommends the highest funding for transportation investment in our nation’s history.”
Republicans at the hearing highlighted concerns in their districts while at times offering an adulatory review of the administration.
Under the budget request, in fiscal 2021 DOT would receive $21.6 billion in discretionary spending, which would amount to a 13% decrease from the 2020 enacted level. Mandatory contract authority and obligation limitations would be provided $66.2 billion, an 8% increase from the 2020 enacted level. Additionally, under the request, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s budget would increase by nearly 4% from the previous year under the request. And, infrastructure and freight grants that have gained support on Capitol Hill would each receive $1 billion.
Revenue from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax backs the federal Highway Trust Fund. The account is used by DOT to assist states with maintenance and construction projects. Congress and the White House approved the fuel tax rates in 1993.
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