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House Appropriators United in Bipartisan Skepticism Over White House Transportation Cuts

June 15, 2017

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development met today to speak about transportation funding for the coming year with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was grilled over Administration plans to slash infrastructure funding, eliminate Amtrak's long-distance trains, and stall transit projects slated for construction.

Overall, appropriators expressed a strong understanding of the need for robust investment in passenger rail and transit, and were extremely skeptical of the White House’s proposed cuts to the transportation budget—particularly for rural communities.

However, Chao was firm in the White House's intention to target those very same rural communities by slashing Amtrak funding.

"Funding for Amtrak’s long distance routes is another area where Federal investments do not match the level of usage. Amtrak’s long distance services are used by a relatively small number of passengers," said the Secretary. "These trains are very expensive to operate and maintain; and account for much of Amtrak’s operating losses. The President’s budget recognizes this is an area with a low return on investment and instead asks us to concentrate our resources on other portions of Amtrak’s system."

Chao's statement is flat out wrong, and Amtrak itself has stated that cutting long distance services -- in addition to eliminating trains that serve a population of 140 million Americans -- would lead to a net loss for the company.

"Amtrak's initial projection is that eliminating long distance services would result in an additional cost of approximately $423 million in FY2018 alone, requiring more funding from Congress and our partners rather than less," said Wick Moorman, Amtrak's President & CEO.

[Do you want to fight against these cuts to Amtrak? Stand with NARP at our #Rally4Trains on the weekend of June 23rd! Check out the rallies near you at www.TownsWithoutTrains.com -- or use the site to organize your own!]

When repeatedly pressed on details of President Trump’s oft-touted infrastructure bill, Sec. Chao promised answers soon—a strong indication that a concrete proposal will not be released this summer.

NARP was on hand to bring you all the relevant exchanges from the hearing:

  • Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) stated that the budget for the DOT at this time was set to be at $16.3 billion. In a positive move, he expressed some worry regarding lack of funding for passenger to Secretary Chao, and mentioned that he was worried about the DOT stopping the funding for Capital Investment Grant programs.
  • Representative David Price (D-NC) expressed concern that the P3 program would not be viable unless the federal government increased its investment from its current proposed $200 billion, as states and local funds would not suffice. He made note that the infrastructure plan that the House was presented with was too vague to work with. He expressed discontent with the proposed $3.1 billion cut on discretionary spending as well with the 50% cut to Amtrak and the 28% cut in funding to the Northeast Corridor stating that these cuts would reduce safety and damage the economy given the NEC's importance. Furthermore he made note that he worried about the $500 million cut set forth to TIGER despite its approval by the omnibus.
  • Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) expressed his concerns about two projects in the NEC, the Gateway and the Hudson Tunnel which he stated require federal funding to fix and any delay would gravely damage GNP and the economies of both NJ and NY. He also stated that he had doubts that $200 billion would be able to leverage $800 billion from private, state, and local sources. Sec. Chao simply reiterated the plan to leverage the aforementioned funds without any in depth answer. Regarding the specific projects brought up, she reverted to talking about permit reform.
  • Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) aggressively expressed her belief that federal funding was insufficient and that localities and states could in no way afford to undergo projects without federal funding.
  • Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) stated that $85 billion was needed to set urban transit into a state of good repair, especially metro systems that younger generations find more appealing than cars. Furthermore he stated that urban transit systems, such as in Chicago, are not suite to P3. When he posed the question of Positive Rail Control and modernized transit systems, Sec. Chao responded that they were streamlining regulations to make upgrading systems of transit faster, but also that funding would be directed mainly towards those "most efficient systems". Quigley then stated that Chicago could not afford to repair and upgrade without federal funding and the current cuts were damaging, Sec. Chao stated that funds were being placed into a "new investment system".
  • Rep. Hal Rodgers (R-KY) expressed concern of the language of the proposed plan saying that it wanted to focus on "the most transformative" projects, leaving him to believe rural America would be overlooked. When he asked her about where the center focus of funding would go, Sec. Chao responded that this was still being debated. Both agreed that private investment was needed but he questioned the idea of selling public assets like tolls to the private sector who may raise tolls but give states quick capital to spend. She responded that some states may have to loosen their restrictions on this matter blocking the measure, and not sell those assets to foreign entities.
  • Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) stated that Positive Train Control required federal funds to be provided, and Sec. Chao responded it was being looked into.
  • Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) asked if the administration would honor the $647 million pledged to the Caltrain and their peninsula electrification project, which he stated would have a difficult time getting private investment. She stated that as of now $170 million would be given due to commitments made by the omnibus. He requested funding be frozen until the project underwent an audit, she did not give a direct answer but seemed to like that proposal. She further stated that appropriated funds for this project was a Congressional issue not one for the DOT.
  • Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) stated that "seed capital" already existed for HSR and Caltrain emphasizing that they were separate entities; and that the TIGER Program was necessary for these projects to continue. He then asked how those funds would be replaced. Sec. Chao responded by saying that TIGER was a popular program but its funds were too "earmarked" and should be replaced with more block style grants to the states to spend as needed. She stated that the administration "philosophically" disagreed with TIGER's implementation.