Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation programs, warned that the Trump administration's approach to project investment "fails to address the greatest threat to our nation's infrastructure, which is the ever-growing insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund."
The senior appropriator continued with several criticisms of the administration's approach on various programs in her opening statement at an April 11 hearing on the Department of Transportation's budget. USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao appeared at the hearing to defend administration proposals.
Collins directed part of her criticism at the president's budget request, although she noted that the administration offered that budget before Congress agreed on a two-year increase in spending caps and then specifically added funding for transportation infrastructure in its fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill.
However, she said, "I am also concerned that the administration has not offered up its own solution to the insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund . . . Rather than focusing on this issue, the administration is instead advocating a new set of grant programs" through its infrastructure investment proposal.
Collins said in the president's infrastructure plan "half of the overall funding would be devoted to the incentives grant program, which would slash the federal cost share of highway projects from the current 80 percent down to 20 percent, and require state and local governments to raise their own revenue to make up the shortfall. This formula would penalize low-income and rural states, in particular, but I find it difficult to conceive of many states or local governments that would choose to apply for federal funds that only provide a 20 percent cost share."
She added that "while I am pleased to see the rural set-aside in the infrastructure proposal, I want to reiterate that this cannot be a substitute for funding from the Highway Trust Fund. Without a fix to the Highway Trust Fund, my concern is that the administration's infrastructure proposal would simply lead to the abdication of the federal role in transportation and lead to devolution to the states. I do not believe that that is a feasible approach."
Chao said the president's budget request and infrastructure proposal "work together to provide bold new ideas for using our financial resources wisely, creatively and expanding our partnerships with state and local governments, and encouraging private-sector involvement where appropriate. These changes provide a path forward to improving our transportation infrastructure quickly without dramatic increases in federal spending that will stifle economic activity and job creation."
Collins went on to criticize administration proposals to reduce funding for the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes commercial air travel for many smaller airports in rural areas, and funding for Amtrak's long-distance routes.
And she said several committee members have expressed concerns with the administration's request to eliminate transit projects supported by federal capital grants "and are particularly concerned about how the administration will use funding provided by Congress" in the 2018 omnibus.
"Communities often wait years to receive approval for these projects after a rigorous evaluation process, and any delays will lead to cost increases for these projects, Collins said. "I know the secretary is deeply concerned about eliminating unnecessary delays and red tape for all infrastructure projects, and so I hope the department will move projects to completion more quickly going forward."
Chao, also noting that the administration put together its budget request in advance of the congressional budget agreements, observed that Congress in its omnibus spending bill added significant amounts of new funding for DOT programs. "The department is assessing the requirements in the act," she said, "and is identifying the steps needed to responsibly administer this funding and the new programs provided on a timely basis as dictated by the Congress."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the subcommittee's ranking member, chided the department for moving too slowly to push out funds Congress has appropriated, particularly for transit projects.
"It is somewhat discouraging to see how slowly the administration is moving to deploy funding provided in previous years," Reed said. "For months and in some cases for more than a year the administration has been sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been put to work on infrastructure and safety projects around the country. For all of its talk about project streamlining, the administration needs to streamline its own process and quickly deploy these dollars."
Chao told Reed that "we've worked very hard" at getting the transit grants out. She noted that during the administration's first year "we did have problems in getting leadership" installed at the USDOT, and that a new administration will want to make sure that its "goals and objectives are incorporated" in programs.
But she said that "we understand the will of Congress," and "I think we've done actually pretty well" on approving funds – "better than I think you've told us."