New Spending Package Has Mixed Results for Federal Construction Programs
Measure reflects Year Two of budget pact's infrastructure boost—over 2017
Most of the attention on the big fiscal 2019 spending package enacted on Feb. 15 understandably has focused on one item, the $1.375 billion the legislation contains for southwest border barriers, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump has pushed for.
But for construction officials, the rest of the package is critical, setting the full-year 2019 funding levels for important federal infrastructure programs, including those at the Dept. of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency and General Services Administration. [View legislagtive text here.]
The results are mixed, with highways and GSA federal buildings scoring increases, but other accounts absorbed some cuts.
The 2019 package—whose enactrment averted a partial government shutdown—represents Year Two of a two-year bipartisan, House-Senate budget deal that included a pledge to hike overall federal infrastructure by $20 billion over two years, compared with 2017 levels.
Like the 2018 bills, the 2019 versions exceeded the budget deal’s $10-billion average annual increase, measured against the 2017 base. A summary from Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats said that the DOT-Housing and Urban Development title alone of the new package was up $10.7 billion for infrastructure over 2017 figures.
But the 2018-2019 numbers are a high bar, and could make infrastructure gains harder to achieve when appropriators dig in to work on the bills for fiscal year 2020, which begins on Oct. 1 of this year.
Highways get bigger 'bonus'
For now, however, construction officials are combing through the just-passed package for 2019. Some have zeroed in on the largest federally funded infrastructure program, highways. The new measure sets the federal-aid highway obligation ceiling at $45.3 billion, up $1 billion, or 2%, from the 2018 enacted level and equal to the amount authorized in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. Those dollars come from the Highway Trust Fund.
In addition, the legislation contains a further $3.25 billion for highways from the general fund, up from $2.525 billion in 2018.
The 2019 “bonus” amount includes $2.73 billion to be distributed to states by formula, up from $1.98 billion last year, and $475 million for bridge replacement and rehabilitation, more than double the 2018 allocation of $225 million.
The Federal Transit Administration receives a total of $13.4 billion for 2019, down $67 million from last year. Within that total, transit formula grants get $9.9 billion and capital investment grants are allotted $2.5 billion. In fiscal 2018, the capital grants received $2.6 billion.
An additional $700 million goes for transit infrastructure grants for things like bus facilities and “state of good repair” projects. Appropriators pared those grants 16%, from 2018’s $834 million.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program, which provides infrastructure grants, had its 2019 obligation limit frozen at 2018’s $3.35-billion level. Those dollars come from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.
Lawmakers also tapped the general fund for an additional $500 million in FAA discretionary airport grants, down 50% from the 2018 discretionary bonus.
DOT’s popular Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants got $900 million for 2019, down 40% from last year. But appropriators rejected the Trump administration’s proposal to zero-out the grant program, which previously was called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER.
EPA water, GSA programs
For the Environmental Protection Agency’s water infrastructure account, the 2019 spending package provides $3.6 billion, a 1% year-over-year increase. Within that total, Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) receive $1.7 billion and Drinking Water SRFs get $1.2 billion. Both are even with their 2018 numbers.
The General Services Administration’s new construction and acquisition account gets $959 million for 2019, up from $692 million in 2018. Of the 2019 total, the lion’s share—$768 million—goes, not for construction, but to exercise a lease-purchase option for U.S. DOT’s existing headquarters building.
GSA federal buildings repairs and alterations receives a 7% boost, to $768 million.