Transportation Policy

Congress Has Ditched Trump's Transit Cuts. What Does That Tell Us About His Infrastructure Plan's Chances?

The administration's proposed cuts to transit did not survive the sausage-making process.

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Urban Highway
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To no one's surprise, the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that passed last week ditched the deep cuts the White House had proposed for the Department of Transportation (DOT).

In February, the administration released an "American Budget" that would have cut DOT's discretionary budget by 20 percent, with the axe falling hardest on federal transit spending, Amtrak subsidies, and the $500-million-a-year Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. The latter would have been eliminated entirely.

The budget signed by the president on Friday instead triples spending on TIGER, boosts the money available for federal transit investments by $200 million, and sends an extra $400 million to Amtrak.

This doesn't portend good things for the administration-backed infrastructure package. The current version of that proposal includes some promising decentralist and free-market reforms, as well as a great deal of unnecessary federal spending. Whatever survives the congressional sausage-making process is likely to include less of the former and a lot more of the latter.

"The biggest problem with this sort of authorization was there was really no policy considerations, it was really the same old money, money, money," says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy expert for the Reason Foundation, which publishes this website.

Take TIGER. Started as a form of economic stimulus during the Great Recession, the program has become a highly politicized funder of local projects. Recipients include not just the collapsed pedestrian bridge at Florida International University but streetscaping projects in Akron, Ohio, and recreational boat ramps in Burlington, Iowa. There was no good reason to give such projects federal support, but legislators from those areas shepherded them through the process.

In addition to upping TIGER's budget from $500 million to $1.5 billion, the 2019 omnibus bill contains no changes to ensure the program's money is at least better spent.

Instead it increased the minimum amount required to go to rural areas from $100 million to $450 million while retaining language that calls for investments in a variety of transportation modes—all but ensuring more TIGER dollars that could fund major highway, rail, or port improvements will instead go to sidewalks in rural Florida.

Something similar can be said for the Capital Investment Grant program, a major funder of light rail and urban transit expansion projects. If the political will existed, it could easily be devolved state and local governments. Donald Trump proposed zeroing out the program over time by refusing to allot funding to projects that the feds weren't already committed to.

Instead, the Trump administration has continued to ink grant deals—and the 2019 omnibus has now increased the program's funding from $2.4 billion to $2.6 billion, with no added policy strings attached.

None of this should be surprising, says Feigenbaum, who says the presidential budget proposal was more of a "political document" than a policy proposal. More reform could have been achieved, he says, if the White House had followed through with more realistic plans.

"It's one thing to say you want to get rid of all funding for transit, but that is not going to pass Congress," he tells Reason. "What you have to do is come up with a metric folks might actually adopt, like we're going to fund transit systems that have a better on-time arrival rate than other systems. We are going to switch funding to capital programs to operating programs."

Trump's better infrastructure ideas may likewise be derailed. Right now, his infrastructure proposal includes several liberalizing reforms—the package would remove federal restrictions on tolling interstates, on commercializing rest stops, and on privatizing airports. To grease the congressional wheels, it also comes with $200 billion in additional federal spending.

Getting this through Congress will require yet more compromises, says Feigenbaum, though "I don't know how much is taking stuff out as putting stuff in."

Congressional Democrats have touted alternative plans that include $1–2 trillion in additional federal spending. Meanwhile, a number of progressive critics have derided many of the liberalizing part of Trump's infrastructure plan as a "scam." Keeping as many reforms as possible while fending off yet more demands for federal spending would require deft politicking and a commitment of some serious political capital. The way transportation policy has shaken out under Trump so far, those probably aren't in the cards.

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