For an administration that is supposed to be prioritizing a massive infrastructure improvement plan, there is very little evidence of such a focus in President Donald Trump’s latest documents detailing his ideas for the discretionary portion of the 2018 fiscal year federal budget.
In fact, big cuts could be coming to several important elements of the U.S. transportation system.
While the budget outline doesn’t mean these cuts will happen, since the U.S. federal budget needs to be tweaked by Congress and approved, it does expose the priorities of the executive branch in its first year under a new administration. Its priorities, unfortunately, will likely come at the expense of U.S. infrastructure and tourism.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) would have its discretionary budget cut by 13 percent, or $2.4 billion, according to the document..
The oft-mentioned $1 trillion infrastructure improvement plan touted by President Trump is given only a passing mention at the beginning of the budget document.
“The President has emphasized that one of his top priorities is modernizing the outdated infrastructure that the American public depends upon,” states the document’s introductory highlights. “To spearhead his infrastructure initiative, the President has tapped a group of infrastructure experts to evaluate investment options along with commonsense regulatory, administrative, organizational, and policy changes to encourage investment and speed project delivery.
“Through this initiative, the President is committed to making sure that taxpayer dollars are expended for the highest return projects and that all levels of government maximize leverage to get the best deals and exercise vigorous oversight. The Administration will provide more budgetary, tax, and legislative details in the coming months.”
Since the so-called “skinny budget” documents only detail plans for discretionary spending, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao says its effect on the DOT should only be considered after the final budget proposals are released.
“For DOT, it addresses the department’s discretionary programs, which make up about one-quarter of the Department’s total resources,” said Chao. “These proposed savings are largely geared towards future program investments, so they will not have an immediate direct impact on our DOT colleagues. This is just the beginning of the budget process, not the end. We will see the more complete picture when OMB (Office of Management and Budget) releases its final FY 2018 budget in May, and as the President’s infrastructure initiative takes shape.”
Following are a few of the other notable takeaways that, if enacted, would affect the U.S. travel industry in a significant way.
As previously reported, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would have its budget slashed to essentially provide more funding for the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
“Eliminates and reduces unauthorized and underperforming programs administered by TSA in order to strengthen screening at airport security checkpoints, a savings of $80 million from the 2017 annualized CR level,” reads the document. “These savings include reductions to the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response program, which achieves few Federal law enforcement priorities, and elimination of TSA grants to State and local jurisdictions, a program intended to incentivize local law enforcement patrols that should already be a high priority for State and local partners.
“In addition, the Budget reflects TSA’s decision in the summer of 2016 to eliminate the Behavior Detection Officer program, reassigning all of those personnel to front line airport security operations. Such efforts refocus TSA on its core mission of protecting travelers and ensuring Federal security standards are enforced throughout the transportation system.”
There is some evidence that the Behavior Detection Officer program has fallen short of expectations so it’s not a surprise to see it singled out for elimination.
Privatized Air Traffic Control
Air traffic control (ATC) would be privatized to save a bit of money that could be shifted to other projects.
The budget “initiates a multi-year reauthorization proposal to shift the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to an independent, non-governmental organization, making the system more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety,” states the document. “This would benefit the flying public and taxpayers overall.”
The move does have some Congressional report, most significantly that of Rep. Bill Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“The inclusion of this good government infrastructure proposal shows that the president is truly focused on changing the way Washington works,” said Shuster. “By removing the ATC function from the FAA, Americans will see a more efficient system, flight times decrease, on-time departures increase, emissions reduced, and 21st century technology deployed to guide our planes from gate to gate. On top of that, the FAA will be able to focus on safety and robust oversight of the new not-for-profit service provider.”
Shuster is known to have a romantic relationship with a top lobbyist for ATC privatization interests. A bill aimed at privatizing ATC was rejected last year by Congress.
Fewer Regional Flights and Trains
One potentially significant outcome of this budget would be the elimination of federal subsidies that help small and regional airports continue to operate. It would completely eliminate the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which helps fund air travel to rural airports.
The problems faced by regional communities, which already see negative economic outcomes from a lack of easy air access, could be exacerbated.
Amtrak would also lose a significant portion of federal support that helps it operate on a nationwide basis.
Trump’s budget “restructures and reduces Federal subsidies to Amtrak to focus resources on the parts of the passenger rail system that provide meaningful transportation options within regions. The Budget terminates Federal support for Amtrak’s long distance train services, which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses.”
The goal, ostensibly, is to better help Amtrak focus on servicing its Northeast Corridor lines.
The plan also calls for the elimination of TIGER grants, which are used by the DOT to invest in potentially impactful transportation infrastructure projects across the country.
One somewhat bizarre transportation priority is found in the document’s section on NASA: a potential return for supersonic flights across the U.S.
Investments will be made to “[pave] the way for eventual over-land commercial supersonic flights and safer, more efficient air travel with a strong program of aeronautics research. The Budget provides $624 million for aeronautics research and development.”
The full document is embedded below.