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Trump budget plan boosts funding for major freight projects

 Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

A competitive grant program providing federal money for large, freight-specific projects would receive $2 billion under President Trump’s 2020 budget proposal, which was released on March 11.

That amount would double the $1 billion allocated for 2020 to the program, known as Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA). In addition, Trump’s proposal removes a $500 million spending limit that had been in place in the program for non-highway projects, including rail, intermodal and port facilities.

“That’s something we’ve been pushing for – we’ve been keenly interested in seeing the restrictions on how funding is spent under INFRA eliminated,” Elaine Nessle, executive director for the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), told FreightWaves.

Eliminating the requirement that the majority of the grant funding be dedicated to highway, bridge and grade separation projects, “provides states and localities more flexibility with regard to how they can spend money. Their most pressing freight bottlenecks might not happen to be a highway issue,” she said.

CAGTC members, many of which are state departments of transportations and ports, stand to benefit significantly from INFRA, which was created under the FAST Act surface transportation funding bill in 2015 and is aimed at projects with a minimum cost of $100 million.

Another competitive grant program receiving a boost under President Trump’s 2020 budget is the Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) program. BUILD was increased by $100 million to $1 billion. BUILD grants, the former TIGER grant program started under the Obama administration, funds capital investments across all modes, including inland waterways and passenger transit.

Despite those increases, Democrats in Congress looking to increase the federal government’s role in transportation funding complain that President Trump’s overall budget package to fund infrastructure doesn’t do enough. The proposal reintroduces a plan, unveiled initially in 2017 but which has yet to gain traction from the private sector, that relies on $200 billion of federal infrastructure funding to get to $1 trillion in investments.

The proposal also cuts discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Transportation by 22 percent to $21.4 billion.

“In effect, the Trump budget would shirk federal responsibility when it comes to our nation’s infrastructure, putting a massive burden on cash-strapped states and local communities and doing nothing to meaningfully address our nation’s infrastructure needs,” said Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (T&I). “When it comes to infrastructure investment, it looks like Congress is going to have to do the heavy lifting.”

Last month DeFazio told reporters after the first House T&I infrastructure hearing that he was setting $500 billion as a lower limit for a six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill, and that raising the gas tax was the best way to prop up the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to expire in 2022.

Also under President Trump’s proposal, funding for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which are both supported through the Highway Trust Fund, remain stable at $676 million and $929 million, respectively, for 2020.

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John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.

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