Obama’s Final Transportation Budget Would Hike Spending 29 Percent in 2017 Alone

AASHTO Journal, 12 February 2016

President Obama as expected proposed a fiscal 2017 budget that would sharply increase spending on mass transit, infrastructure grants and “clean transportation” projects while maintaining most highway spending at FAST Act levels, and pay for the increases with a new per-barrel tax on petroleum.

It was the first time in his seven years as president that Obama has offered a specific, sustainable revenue-generating mechanism for transportation investments. However, news reports citing reactions from Congress say it has little to no chance of passage.

The proposal has drawn criticism from Republicans who control Congress for how an oil fee would hike prices to consumers for fuel and other products, and criticism from some infrastructure investment advocates as coming too late to affect major legislative vehicles like the multiyear surface transportation law Congress passed in December.

Obama proposed to spend nearly $98.1 billion in the year that starts Oct. 1 on programs under the Department of Transportation, up 29 percent from the $76 billion enacted level for this year.

Most of the Federal Highway Administration programs would be at FAST Act levels, though the budget plan would add $7.5 billion in “21st century clean transportation plan investments” designed to shift away from fossil fuel-powered transportation and cut carbon emissions, and to make systems more resilient to storms and weather extremes.

The plan would also provide clean transportation funding additions of more than $6 billion to the Federal Transit Administration, $3.7 billion for rail service improvements and some similar funding for the highway and truck safety programs.

It would boost the USDOT’s TIGER grants program to $1.25 billion from $500 million now, but would reduce the Federal Aviation Administration’s grants-in-aid to airports by $450 million to $2.9 billion.

As earlier reported, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had pronounced the proposed oil fee to fund a surge in transportation spending as “dead on arrival” well ahead of the formal budget transmission.

At the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, President Pete Ruane said the president’s plan, which would also provide a long-term revenue stream beyond the five years of the FAST Act, “is an explicit admission that he and the Congress did not provide long-term sustainability” for the trust fund when enacting the FAST Act in December.

But while Ruane said the proposed phased-in oil fee of about $10.25 per barrel “is exactly the type of solution that is necessary going forward,” he added that “unfortunately, the game was played last year and the president was AWOL.” Ruane also criticized Ryan’s “dismissive reaction” to the proposal and asked how the Speaker proposes to pay for highway and transit programs over the long term.

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