Key federal construction programs have won funding increases, though modest ones, in a newly enacted $1.2-trillion spending package. The legislation, which extends through Sept. 30—the end of fiscal year 2017—also has additional dollars for border security, but not for building President Trump's proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Trump signed the legislation on May 5, hours before an earlier stopgap measure was to expire.
Final congressional approval of the omnibus spending bill came on May 4, when the Senate passed it on a 79-18 vote. The House had cleared the package one day earlier.
The House cleared the omnibus spending bill one day earlier by a 309-118 tally. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill's price tag at $1.2 trillion, counting emergency funding and other spending outside of regular appropriations for the Defense Dept. and other agencies.
With the fiscal 2017 bill now wrapped up, attention is shifting to appropriations for 2018. Construction officials were unhappy with Trump's March outline of his 2018 budget proposal, issued in March, because it reduced or zeroed-out funds for key infrastructure accounts. The figures in the 2017 measure are giving industry officials hope that Congress won't agree to Trump's proposed 2018 reductions.
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the president is expected to send his detailed FY18 budget request to Congress in late May.
Sticking With FAST Act
For the construction industry, a highlight of the newly signed 2017 bill is that it restores federal highway and transit funding to the levels authorized in the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act.
The programs have been operating since last October under temporary spending measures whose funding was held to 2016 levels, which were lower than the FAST Act's 2017 numbers.
The new package adds $905 million to the highway obligation ceiling, up about 2% from 2016.
It also adds $753 million, a 9% hike, to transit formula grants and $236 million, an 11% gain, for transit capital investment grants, which fund new transit starts.
Jim Tymon, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials chief operating officer, says of the legislation, "It fulfills the promise that Congress made with the passage of the FAST Act." Tymon says that the long delay in getting full FAST Act 2017 funds was becoming a major problem for state transportation departments.
"The later in the year you go, the farther into the construction season you get," he says. "And not having that predictability of knowing whether or not you're going to get that additional money has been, I think, problematic for some state DOTs."
Dave Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for government relations, says, "While it's certainly not optimal to have the final numbers set seven months into the fiscal year, it is gratifying, from a certainty standpoint, that for the second year in a row, they have fully funded the FAST Act's highway authorization levels."
Bauer says, "Nobody ever said the FAST Act was funding the highway and transit programs at amounts commensurate with the nation's needs. What most folks heralded were the policy and the fact that we've got a five-year bill." He adds, "It's important that they are delivering what they said they would do."
Looking Ahead to FY 2018
Trump has proposed canceling 2018 funding for new transit starts that do not yet have full-funding agreements with the Dept. of Transportation. With that proposal as a backdrop, the American Public Transportation Association was pleased to see the new spending legislation give the transit capital grants account a sizable hike. Richard A. White, APTA acting president and CEO, said in a statement, "We see this provision as a barometer of strong bipartisan congressional support for the program."
Trump also proposed zeroing-out DOT's Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants, but the new 2017 package continues TIGER at $500 million, the same as its 2016 level. For each of the TIGER program's grant rounds since 2009, it has attracted requests for far more money than DOT has had available.
Bauer says, "I get [that Trump's] budget was for 2018 and this is a 2017 appropriations bill but, I mean, everybody who wrote those  bills knows exactly what he proposed for the  capital investment grants and the TIGER program."
He adds, "I'm not going to predict how that'll play out, but I do think it signals that these are areas to watch as the [FY18] process goes this year."
Among non-DOT programs, the bill freezes Environmental Protection Agency clean-water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) at their 2016 level of $1.4 billion and holds drinking-water SRFs at their 2016 mark of $863 million.
The legislation also adds funding to support a $1-billion increase in federal Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans, up from $2 billion in an earlier stopgap.
Trump's 2018 outline proposed slashing EPA's overall budget by 31%, the largest percentage reduction among major agencies, but it didn't specify what he would recommend for the SRFs.
Adam Krantz, National Association of Clean Water Agencies' CEO, said in a statement that, in light of Trump's proposed big 2018 cut for EPA, "the near-level support for EPA through the second half of FY17 is a positive sign for clean water funding as legislators and water stakeholders move toward FY18 negotiations."
For rural water infrastructure, the measure increases Agriculture Dept. water and waste-disposal grants by 8%, to $392 million. It freezes water and waste-disposal loans at $1.25 billion. Trump proposed no funds in FY18 for the rural water grants.
Boost for Corps Civil Works
For Army Corps of Engineers civil-works activities, the bill provides just over $6 billion, a hike of $49 million, or about 1%, from 2016. Within that total, the bill increases the Corps construction account, also by about 1%, to $1.9 billion.
The Corps civil-works operation and maintenance program received a $12-million increase, to $3.15 billion. Industry group Waterways Council Inc. noted that the 2017 number represents the fourth consecutive year of record funding for the "O&M" account.
The Corps' 2017 allocations also won praise from the American Association of Port Authorities.
The Dept. of Energy's environmental cleanup of former nuclear-weapons plants got a 3% hike, to $6.4 billion.
The legislation also provides the Dept. of Homeland Security with $1.5 billion for border security and immigration enforcement, but no funding for constructing Trump's wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Still, OMB's Mulvaney told reporters on May 1, the administration will be able to use the legislation's $1.5 billion "on things like maintenance on the existing wall—infrastructure, roads, bridges, gates, technology, lighting—things that will have a material impact on border security this year."
Story updated on 5/5 with bill's signing and comments from AASHTO and ARTBA