DALLAS – The Senate Appropriations Committee approved transportation and housing spending for fiscal 2018 that provides promised highway and transit funding to states while restoring cuts made to popular grant programs by its House counterpart.

Senate committee’s spending plan for 2018 would allow airports to raise the federal passenger fee that supports revenue bonds for terminal projects.
Senate committee’s spending plan for 2018 would allow airports to raise the federal passenger fee that supports revenue bonds for terminal projects.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

The measure adopted on Thursday includes the $45 billion of federal highway funding to states and the $9.7 billion for transit that were allocated in 2015’s Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act as well as $2.1 billion of New Starts grants for transit projects.

House appropriators, in contrast, set total funding for the New Starts grants at $1.75 billion in 2018, down $660 million from fiscal 2017 but $520 million more than requested by the Trump administration. The Trump administration proposed ending the grants, except for projects that already have a full funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration.

The Senate committee also restored the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) competitive grant program to $550 million, an increase of $50 million from fiscal 2017. The administration’s budget proposal and the spending plan adopted July 17 by the House Appropriations Committee would end the grant program created by President Obama’s 2009 stimulus program.

The committee unanimously also approved $60 billion of discretionary spending for the Transportation Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development after defeating a Democratic effort to boost infrastructure spending by an additional $7.7 billion.

The amendment by Sen. Jack Reed, D-Del., to raise the spending level to $67.7 billion was rejected on a party line vote of 17 to 16.

The extra funding would be needed because the administration has not yet unveiled its $1 trillion, 10-year infrastructure renewal effort that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump promised during the 2016 campaign, Reed said.

“The infrastructure bill has not materialized, except for a few talking points released with the president’s budget plan two months ago,” Reed said.

Reed’s amendment included an additional $1 billion of TIGER grants, $2 billion to repair aging highway bridges, and $500 million for rail infrastructure.

The additional funding in Reed’s proposal would have helped restore aging infrastructure that is hindering the American economy while providing thousands of new jobs, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee’s ranking Democrat.

“I’d like to make America as great as it can be,” Leahy said. “I hope we can get to where we start repairing things in this country.”

Spending in the Senate Committee appropriations bill for Transportation and HUD totals $3.6 billion more than the House Appropriations Committee's $56.5 billion in its measure, H.R. 3353.

The Senate committee also allocated $3 billion for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program that was to be eliminated under the administration’s proposal. The House panel’s bill would trim the CDBG program to $2.9 billion.

Airport groups praised and airlines criticized the provision in the spending plan that would allow airports to increase the federal passenger facility charge (PFC) that supports revenue bonds for terminals and other infrastructure projects.

The Senate committee’s measure would allow the originating airport to raise the fee ,now capped at $4.50 per trip segment, to $8.50 although the $4.50 limit would remain for connecting flights. The PFC generated $3.2 billion for airports in fiscal 2017, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The higher PFC will allow airports to update their facilities and provide a better traveling experience for passengers, said Kevin Burke, chief executive of the Airports Council International-North America advocacy group.

The PFC has lost much of its purchasing power to inflation since the last cap increase was back in 2000, Burke said.

“With so many politically divisive issues plaguing Washington, it is refreshing to see the Senate Appropriations Committee putting words into action through a bipartisan effort to modernize America’s aging airport infrastructure,” he said.

The higher PFC is a “completely unnecessary poke in the eye and wallet of air travelers,” said Nicholas Calio, president of the trade organization Airlines for America.

Almost all airports have investment-grade credit ratings, which give them access to historically low interest rates through the bond market, he said.

“The truth of the matter is that airports are flush with cash,” Calio said. “It is disingenuous at best for Congress to repeatedly saddle traveling families and businesses with tax hike after tax hike while airports are sitting on billions in unused funds.”

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