Sen. Susan Collins criticizes the president’s Transportation Department budget for offering “no path forward after the FAST Act expires.”
Treasury Secretary Elaine Chao on Wednesday said an infrastructure plan “should be done in consultation with the Congress” and suggested using the surface transportation reauthorization bill as the main vehicle.
“Does it make sense to have two vehicles, an infrastructure bill and a surface reauthorization?” she asked during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing reviewing the fiscal year 2020 budget request for the Transportation Department. “Given the compressed time frame it may very well be that it’s easier for everyone — ourselves, as well as the Congress, the Senate and the House — to have one vehicle, and that perhaps should be the surface reauthorization bill.”
The new surface authorization bill would succeed 2015’s Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which is set to lapse on Sept. 30, 2020.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is working on an infrastructure bill he wants proposed by May, Chao said. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., ranking member of the House committee, said in a speech to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials last month he does not think a bill would happen if it’s not out of the House by August, “simply because of the election and everything that comes along with that.”
During her opening statement, subcommittee Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, criticized portions of the president’s proposed budget for the Transportation Department that cut the department’s discretionary funding by $5 billion from 2019 enacted levels, she said, to $21.4 billion.
“The budget request also fails to address the looming insolvency of the highway trust fund and offers no path forward after the FAST Act expires at the end of fiscal year 2020,” Collins (pictured above) said. “It is imperative that the administration work with the authorizing committees to enact a long-term surface transportation bill that provides realistic funding for the highway trust fund.”
Chao said the administration hopes to address the highway trust fund through the surface reauthorization bill. She also said the administration is open to increasing gas taxes and the charge on airplane tickets, which help fund airport expansion.
“I think the good news is nothing is off the table,” she said in response to a question from Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Chao said the president’s budget requests $84 billion to support transportation programs in fiscal year 2020, about 75 percent of which would fully fund the final year of the FAST Act and the FAA’s authorized funding levels for the grants and aid for airport’s programs.
Subcommittee Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the $84 billion is less than both the 2018 and 2019 bills, which “should be the baseline from which new transportation investment should grow.”
“In the face of a proposed $58 billion cut in total nondefense funding, the Department of Transportation escapes some of the damage in the president’s budget request in comparison to other agencies,” Reed said in his opening statement. “However, I think that we can all agree that the request still falls short of addressing the severe infrastructure deficiencies we all face as a nation and backslides from the investments we made in 2019. If we are to pass a THUD and the other 11 appropriations bills this year, we’ll need to set aside the administration’s cuts and start with a new multiyear budget agreement that builds on the last bipartisan budget act.”
The department’s funding increased in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years when the government-wide caps were increased, Chao said, which “was a one-time increase above the requested president’s budget.”