In his first appearance before congressional appropriations panels, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx talked up his department’s fiscal year 2015 budget request, and the Obama administration’s $302-billion, four-year surface transportation plan.
One bit of news that emerged was Foxx’s comment that DOT would send its promised surface-transportation bill to Congress in April. That timetable would be in synch with Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer’s goal of having the highway-policy portion of a new legislative package ready for her committee to vote on it next month.
As for other construction-related parts of DOT’s FY15 budget, appropriators criticized some elements but praised others. Republicans, as expected, were more critical than Democrats.
Foxx’s appropriations visits began on March 12 before the House transportation-housing subcommittee. Panel Chairman Tom Latham (R-Iowa.) started off by calling DOT “a bit of a problem child.” He noted that the current highway-transit authorization measure, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, expires Sept. 30 and said that the Highway Trust Fund will be “flat out of money” later this year.
Latham and Rep, Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the full Appropriations Committee’s chairman, blasted DOT’s plan to shift about $4 billion worth of programs from discretionary spending to mandatory spending.
Rogers, who hammered out a deal in January with Senate Appropriations Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) on a 2014 omnibus spending package, slammed the DOT budget’s proposed hike in airport passenger facility charges—which help fund infrastructure—as well as its new transportation trust fund. He termed those items “budget gimmicks that Congress has time and again said ‘no’ to.”
Rogers also criticized the administration’s continued support for high-speed passenger rail. The budget includes $2.3 billion for “high-performance passenger rail networks” around the country. Rogers singled out funding from previous years that has gone to California’s rail project. Congress hasn’t approved high-speed rail money for several years. And Rogers’ comments don’t bode well for that part of the 2015 request.
As he has said in other recent speeches, Foxx warned of the pain to come from failing to strengthen the trust fund. He said he had talked to governors and state DOT officials and added, “I cannot overemphasize the impact of going over the [trust fund] cliff for the states.” Some are saying they would have to delay awarding contracts for new projects.
Latham pressed Foxx on details of what the secretary called the “pro-growth” business tax reform that would finance much of the $302-billion transportation bill.
Foxx dodged a bit on whether the expected April DOT legislation would include a specific tax “pay-for.” He pointed to the Treasury Dept.’s budget request, which he said suggests changes in tax treatment of accelerated depreciation and last-in-first-out inventory accounting.
Foxx repeated that DOT isn’t dug in on its business tax proposal but open to ideas from Congress. “This is a dialogue, not a monologue,” he said.
Foxx was on friendlier ground the next day when he went before the Senate transportation-housing subcommittee.
The subcommittee's chairman, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), praised DOT’s proposal, saying it “focuses on prudent investments, beginning with fixing our existing infrastructure.” DOT’s 2015 plan has a “Fix-it-First” component, including $4.9 billion to rebuild and rehabilitate highways and bridges that are now in place but aging.
Murray, a prime mover behind DOT’s five-year-old TIGER grants, also welcomed the $1.25 billion the budget seeks for the program in 2015, more than double its 2014 level.
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, also had good things to say about TIGER, which has benefited projects in her state.
But Collins cast doubt on near-term prospects for the administration's suggested corporate tax change to fund its transportation bill. Collins said she sees a need for tax reform, But added, “I don’t that it’s realistic to assume that we’ll be able to [take up the issue] this year.”