President Trump’s proposed budget for the Department of Transportation (DOT) is running into resistance from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
During a hearing on Thursday, House appropriators expressed deep concern over the administration’s proposed cuts to a number of popular transportation programs, as well as Trump’s support for a controversial plan to separate air traffic control from the federal government.
“I have not been shy in saying that I believe we should maintain air traffic control as a system that is accountable to the public,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.
“And I don’t see any other way to achieve this than to continue our congressional oversight role.”
Trump in his budget blueprint endorsed a proposal to hand over the nation’s air navigation system to a nonprofit entity. The administration argues that removing the current system from the unpredictable appropriations process will help speed up long-stalled modernization efforts, pointing to the outdated air traffic control technology currently used in the U.S.
A similar spinoff model was proposed in a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last year, but stalled amid opposition from Democrats, GOP tax-writers and Republican appropriators.
Their chief concern is that the spinoff proposal removes air traffic control from congressional oversight and leaves them little way to hold operations accountable, which they say is especially alarming since the nongovernmental agency will have the power to impose fees on the public and users of the system.
But despite backing from the White House this year, appropriators do not appear to have warmed up to the contentious idea.
“I’m wide open to improving the ways FAA makes decisions and investments … the problem, though, is that I’m concerned that the proposal would eliminate the public’s voice in something as critical as air traffic control,” Diaz-Balart said.
“I just don’t see how a board of directors from different industries are going to do anything except … support their special interests.”
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was testifying in front of the panel, emphasized that the board would be comprised of a wide array of stakeholders, while passengers would still have the ability to take their concerns to members of Congress.
“The public would have the same recourse to appeal to congressmen and senators like they do now,” Chao said.
Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), ranking member on the subcommittee, lamented that the proposal would threaten some users’ access to the national airspace and would hand over government assets to a private corporation for free.
“I have grave concerns about this. The model … would reduce transparency and oversight while allowing for fee increases and diminished access to the national airspace,” Price said.
“It would also represent an unprecedented giveaway of taxpayer funded assets to an untested, private entity.”
Other lawmakers on Thursday pressed Chao on the administration’s proposed funding cuts to the DOT. Trump’s budget would slash the agency’s discretionary budget by nearly 13 percent, to $16.2 billion.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) criticized the White House for proposing the transportation cuts while also vowing to move a separate $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which he said would mean “nothing” if Congress follows through with both efforts.
“You will just have taken it from one spigot and put it into another,” Quigley said.
Chao defended the proposed cuts, saying they will allow transportation investments to be “reshifted, repackaged and repurposed” more efficiently.
“The administration has taken a closer look at programs that may not be meeting their intended purposes, have outgrown their usefulness or could be replaced with a new initiative that will better address future transportation needs” Chao said.
But when pressed for more details, Chao said the infrastructure package is still being finalized, with a final proposal expected to come sometime “in fall.”
The key question of how the infrastructure bill will be paid for also remains unclear, though Chao said there are a “plethora” of funding options and that everything is on the table.
Trump’s budget for the DOT specifically targets the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment grant program, the Essential Air Service program for rural and small airports and the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program created by former President Obama.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the full committee, took issue with the limited funding for the Capital Investment grant program, also known as New Starts, under Trump’s spending blueprint.
He said the program was of “vital importance” for projects like the Gateway Project and Hudson Tunnel in New York and New Jersey.
“Given the clear benefits of this project, and the disastrous consequence of inaction, I’m concerned about the fiscal year budget provision limiting funding for capital investment grants,” Frelinghuysen said.
Diaz-Balart also expressed concern that the White House budget would terminate capital improvement grants for projects that are in the design and planning stage, but have not yet entered the final approval stage.
Another point of contention for the panel was Trump’s spending proposal to completely eliminate TIGER grants, which are widely popular among states and cities and can be used for a broad range projects.
“Equally concerning is the proposal to zero out TIGER funding,” Price said. “This is a very successful grant program.”
Chao reiterated that many of the current transportation programs have not been meeting their purpose and should thus be reconsidered.
“The infrastructure bill will highlight ways to fund worthy projects using different funding formulas,” Chao said.