WASHINGTON – A key House staffer assured the U.S. Conference of Mayors that federal transit formula aid will be maintained despite apparent plans by the Trump administration to call for cuts to Amtrak and other transit programs.

Matt Sturges, staff director of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, gave that prediction Thursday after a White House official briefed the mayors on the outline of the administration's infrastructure plan.

“My chairman, in particular, is not looking for issues that are going to detract from Hill support to get something done,” Sturges said.

The House and Senate are expected to address infrastructure in several bills, including reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act and a brownfields bill although surface transportation is getting the most public attention.

D.J. Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy, spoke to the mayors Thursday, telling them that the plan will not include any revenue proposals to pay for $200 billion of federal spending. Instead it will use cuts from existing transportation programs such as Amtrak and transit, he said according to CQ. Gribbin, however, said existing formual funding for programs will not be cut.

The administration is not planning to eliminate the Highway Trust Fund, which provides funding for highways and transit according to a formula, or state revolving funds, he said according to CQ.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speculated that the administration may try to repurpose unspent transit funds to finance its infrastructure plan.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti Brian Tumulty, The Bond Buyer

Funding for Amtrak is part of the annual appropriations process handled by the House and Senate appropriations committees which frequently override White House requests for cuts to favored programs.

Many of the mayors attending their winter conference here were disappointed by the outline of the administration’s plan because the $200 billion in federal spending over 10 years would not be new money.

“It sounds like they are trying to take money away from transit, which is mostly cities,” Mayor Rob Rennie of Los Gatos, Calif. said in an interview after hearing Gribbin’s presentation. “If the White House is deciding who gets the money, I worry that it’s more of a transfer from cities more to rural, or more to roads.”

Rennie, whose Silicon Valley city is the headquarters of Netflix, said he has “more confidence the Congress will think through this more rationally and work with the mayors more.”

Mayor Harry LaRosiliere of Plano, Texas also pointed out that most of the work on an infrastructure plan will be done by Congress. “I’m encouraged that a package will come out,” LaRosiliere said, adding that the mayors “will make the best of it.”

The administration is preparing to announce a four-part infrastructure plan next month that includes incentive grants for states and local governments, a rural grant program, another program for so-called transformational projects and increases in federal lending programs.

Mayor David Berger of Lima, Ohio
Mayor David Berger of Lima, Ohio Brian Tumulty, The Bond Buyer

President Trump recently said the plan would leverage up to $1.7 trillion in spending. The White House plan does not call for a new gas tax help cover future shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund, but the administration is not opposing a federal gas or fuel tax increase.

Mayor David Berger of Lima, Ohio was critical of the White House plan, saying he thinks it will mostly be financed by new municipal borrowing.

Local communities spent nearly $1.5 trillion on water and sewer projects between 2001 and 2015, which represented 98% of the cost, according to Berger.

“The federal contribution now is minimal,” he said. “They walked away years ago and they need to come back. This needs to be more than loans with interest and principal payments.”

Local government debt in 2015 reached $1.8 trillion, with many cities near their borrowing capacity.

“We are already leveraged,” Berger said. “And in fact, the numbers are just stunning if you look at the amount of debt cities already have. I really think that what they are proposing could, in fact, create a municipal bubble, debt bubble, which I don’t think any of us want to see.”

“They expect state cooperation and we’re hurting on that in Illinois,” Mayor Rod Craig of Hanover Park said in an interview, observing that Illinois withheld $460,000 in aid to his community this year. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it. Our state of Illinois is in a state of disrepair so we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Garcetti told reporters that the federal tax overhaul enacted last month “was a huge missed opportunity” to use the repatriation of offshore corporate profits for infrastructure, which had bipartisan support.

“It was a giveaway to corporations and billionaires instead of to everyday people who are stuck in traffic,” Garcetti told The Bond Buyer. Instead, the tax overhaul “slowed down infrastructure and took away jobs in America,” he said, claiming it “makes it longer, more expensive to do things like affordable housing.”

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said his city has the taxing ability to participate in the administration’s program, but noted, “Historically the federal government has played a much larger role in infrastructure funding.”

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