Lawmakers at war with Trump over transportation programs

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WASHINGTON – Members of Congress are both warning the Trump administration to use the increased funding for transportation they recently approved and making clear they won’t give up in their effort to fund the Gateway rail project in the New York metro area.

Some of the funding approved involves transportation programs President Trump proposed zeroing out in his budget requests for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Members of Senate and House Appropriations Committee panels delivered these messages to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao at hearings held Wednesday and Thursday on appropriations for fiscal 2019, which begins Oct. 1.

“I remain angered by the administration’s opposition” to Gateway, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said Thursday.

Frelinghuysen, who chairs the full House Appropriations Committee, described the proposed Gateway Hudson Tunnels Project under the Hudson River as a “project of national importance by two states that bore the brunt of the 9/11 attack.”

The committee voted to appropriate $900 million for Gateway last year for fiscal 2018, but the omnibus spending bill recently approved by Congress reduced it to $541 million without any mention of Gateway after President Trump threatened to veto the bill because of the project.

“Quite honestly, I worry about the possibility of a catastrophe in one of these tunnels,” Frelinghusen said.

Frelinghuysen also told Chao: “Gateway will be built, if not during your tenure as secretary, then hereafter.”

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the full committee, echoed Frelinghuysen’s concern about the Gateway project, saying that she has constituents in Rockland County who take trains into Manhattan that run under the Hudson River.

The proposed dual-track rail tunnel under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and Manhattan is opposed by Trump even though the White House says it is expediting approval of major infrastructure projects. The Federal Railroad Administration recently missed a March 31 target date for completing an environmental review of the $12.7 billion project.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., agreed that Gateway is a project of national importance, adding that some of his constituents in North Carolina use the North East Corridor rail service to get to New York.

Price described the administration’s overall budget request for transportation as “woefully inadequate,” proposing cuts to transit and Amtrak as well as the elimination of funds for the popular Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program.

Price said the budget requests stand “in stark contrast” to the omnibus spending bill, which triples TIGER funds and represents the largest investment in rail since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Congress recently approved an $8.8 billion increase in discretionary transportation programs to $27.3 billion in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill.

Sen. Susan, Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Senate subcommittee, described the funding increase as “the first down payment on the administration’s infrastructure initiative.”

The Trump administration, in contrast, proposed only $16.2 billion for discretionary transportation programs in fiscal 2018 and a further reduction to $15.6 billion in fiscal 2019.

“It is my goal to do the will of Congress,” Chao said Wednesday during the hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Transportation Housing and Urban Development.

Chao also listened to bipartisan criticism for the administration’s failure to offer a plan to fully fund the Highway Trust Fund, which historically has been the main source of federal funding for highways and transit but is to become insolvent in 2021. Lawmakers told her that the White House plan for privatizing the Federal Aviation Administration won’t pass Congress.

The administration’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget “fails to address the greatest threat to our nation’s infrastructure, which is the ever-growing insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund,” Collins said. “Without a fix to the Highway Trust Fund, the administration’s infrastructure proposal would simply lead to an abdication of the federal role in transportation and lead to devolution to the states.”

Collins described the competitive TIGER grant program as “highly effective and popular,” noting that Chao commended the program at a recent ribbon cutting ceremony.

At Thursday’s House subcommittee hearing, Chao said the administration had hoped to continue with a TIGER-type program under its own infrastructure proposal.

But the incentive grant program proposed in Trump's infrastructure plan, which would reduce federal funding to cover only 20% of project costs and leave the other 80% to states, localities or private parties, has gotten a frigid reception in Congress.

The Trump plan would require legislation from Congress.

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Infrastructure TIFIA Highway trust fund Amtrak New Jersey Transit Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Washington DC New Jersey New York