The President’s budget: What does it mean for us?
The Trump White House released its “skinny budget” last week which includes significant cuts to non-defense discretionary funds, including a 13 percent cut to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and some programs. This budget is for fiscal year 2018 which starts October 1, 2017, and not the 2017 budget still being debated in Congress.
The budget lays out a 13 percent cut to the DOT including a zeroing out of TIGER, severe cuts to Amtrak long distance trains and limits transit “New Starts” program to projects where funds have already been obligated. The cut of 13 percent puts the DOT in the middle of cuts to non-defense agencies. EPA was cut 31 percent, while the Treasury and Justice departments only had a 4 percent cut.
The budget does not directly affect transportation alternatives, or other core programs like CMAQ or STP. Transportation Alternatives and other core programs are not affected by the budget because the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) funds them. The HTF is basically a lock box of funding that can only be spent on transportation. This could be why the DOT budget was only cut by 13 percent. These other programs: TIGER, Amtrak, Transit “New Starts” programs are not part of the HTF, so they are more vulnerable in this stage of the budget process.
The budget eliminates TIGER — which hurts biking and walking, and multimodal projects. The TIGER program is a discretionary program that funds projects hard to fund under normal transportation funding programs. For instance, it funds projects that cross state and jurisdiction borders. The program originated as part of the stimulus project, and gave the US DOT significant discretion in how to direct funding. The DOT, under both Secretaries LaHood and Foxx, prioritized multi-modal projects (such as requiring biking and walking access on bridges) and funded larger projects like Vision Zero in New York City, Complete streets redesign in Dubuque Iowa, and a trails network in the Philadelphia, PA, region.
The argument for defunding the transit program could have repercussions for biking and walking in the future. In justifying the end of new grants under “New Starts” the budget document states that, “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.”
This argument — that transit is a local service therefore should not be part of federal funding — is one that can be applied to bicycling and walking projects and we should expect to see it in the future as well.
The Trump Budget includes a 13 percent cut to U.S. Department of Transportation overall. This includes the programs listed here, but could also mean some personnel cuts. In addition to this budget, Congressional Quarterly reported that the White House is working on an executive order that would require agencies to reorganize — to work more efficiently, eliminate duplicative funding and ensure programs cost less.
While we all support a more effective and efficient DOT, this could result in some programs being understaffed and not implemented effectively. Specifically we will need to watchdog changes to staff, and to the implementation of initiatives like the performance measures for which we fought so hard.
Staff cuts could also make it hard for the agency to process and implement any new infrastructure funding, particularly if that funding comes through a new program instead of existing programs.
Why cut transit, Amtrak and TIGER when the President wants to invest a trillion dollars into infrastructure? It does seem counter productive to cut transportation funding when the president has promised significant investment in infrastructure. According to the Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) stated that the “line item” cuts in the budget cut “less efficient [programs] than the infrastructure package that we’re working on for later on this year.”
Efficiency can be in the eye of beholder, and depends on the measurement. Mulvaney’s remarks should be a caution for those who care about bicycling and walking. We can argue that bicycling and pedestrian projects are less than two percent of the transportation budget and account for 12 percent of all trips, that they create more jobs per million dollar spent and that they reduce congestion and improve air quality. We’ll need to learn more about how the Trump Administration measure efficiency.
 New Starts are transit projects where:
- Total project cost is equal to or greater than $300 million or total New Starts funding sought equals or exceeds $100 million
- New fixed guide way system (light rail, commuter rail etc.)
- Extension to existing system
- Fixed guide way Bus Rapid Transit system
How likely is it that Congress will pass the President’s Budget?
Congress takes the President’s budget into consideration when they write the budget law. When the same party holds the White House and the Congress we expect more agreement in the general direction — in this case, more spending on defense spending, less on domestic programs — but the details will be written by Congress.
If that’s the case, why bother?
The President’s budget is developed with input from the agencies and so gives us a sense of the priorities of both U.S. DOT and the White House.
For a primer on the budget process: Click here.