Questions regarding future surface transportation and Amtrak funding, infrastructure legislation, and Congressional earmarks were directed at U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao during her appearance before the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee on March 27.
While roughly half of the hearing revolved around the investigation of two Boeing 737 Max aircraft crashes, with Sec. Chao fielding inquiries regarding her department’s response to those incidents – including an audit by the Office of the Inspector General and the formation of a new USDOT committee to review the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft certification process – the rest centered on issues related to the transportation funding requests outlined in President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair of the THUD subcommittee, noted in her remarks that the FY 2020 budget request “unfortunately does not address the [sequestration] cap. As a result, USDOT’s discretionary budget [will be] cut by $5 billion from the FY 2019 levels. The budget request also fails to address the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund and offers no path forward after the FAST [Fixing America’s Surface Transportation] Act expires at the end of FY 2020.”
Sec. Chao explained in her remarks that “when we compare the president’s budget request for FY 2019 and FY 2020, the FY 2020 budget provides an overall 8.9 percent increase. Further, compared to the FY 2017 enacted level, prior to the budget cap deal increases, the overall increase for FY 2020 is almost 8 percent.”
She added that the FY 2020 budget includes a proposal to reform the way Amtrak’s long-distance routes are managed, focused on using trains on shorter distance routes between “promising city pairs” while providing robust intercity bus service to currently under-served rural areas via partnership between Amtrak and bus operators.
To support that initiative, Sec. Chao said the FY 2020 budget proposal includes $550 million in “transitional grants” that would assist state governments in taking on the management of such newly created state-supported route; grants that would phase down and out over a five-year period.
Several senators questioned why Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is only provided with $325 million in funding out of the passenger railway’s $1.5 billion total budget proposed for FY 2020. Sec. Chao countered that Amtrak “has almost $1 billion on the books. Why is there idle cash? Those cash balances need to be taken a look at. Why is it so high?”
When it came to discussing future revenue sources for the HTF, she said the “good news is nothing is off the table. We are obviously talking about the future of the [highway] trust fund as part of the ongoing infrastructure discussions at the White House.”
Sec. Chao also highlighted “an issue we need to discuss: as we have surface reauthorization coming up, does it make sense to have two infrastructure bills [that need to be completed] in a compressed timeframe? I believe it will be easier on everyone if there is just one vehicle for infrastructure funding and it should be through the surface reauthorization bill.”
One senator noted that President Trump is in favor of more “Congressionally-directed spending,” more commonly known as earmarks, and asked Sec. Chao if she supported that. “If the president said that [he favors Congressional-directed spending] then I agree with the president,” she responded.