Connecting state and local government leaders
The legislation would also unlock as much as $900 million for the Amtrak Gateway tunnel replacement program in the New York City area.
WASHINGTON — Millions of dollars for federal grant programs that pump money to state and local governments would be shifted around and slashed under a transportation, housing and urban development appropriations bill that a U.S. House subcommittee approved on Tuesday night.
But the legislation rejects many of the deep cuts President Trump called for in his fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. And it's all but certain that the funding levels outlined for various programs in the House bill will change as Congress continues its work in the weeks ahead to develop a spending plan for the upcoming budget cycle.
Now that the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development has approved the bill, the measure will advance to the full Appropriations Committee.
In total, the bill includes $56.5 billion in discretionary funding—$1.1 billion below enacted levels, but $8.6 billion above the president's budget request.
“I think this is a very good bill," U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who chairs the subcommittee said after the mark-up session for the legislation.
But he added: “We’ve had to make some tough choices."
The bill would provide $2.9 billion for the Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG program. That amount is shy of the amount mayors would like to see, and it is less than the $3 billion in CDBG funding for the current 2017 fiscal year.
Funding for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants would be zeroed-out.
Congress allocated $500 million for the TIGER program in fiscal 2017. The grants have funded road and transit projects in urban and rural areas across the U.S.
The legislation also carves out $900 million that would be available for a massive railway project, called the Gateway program, in the New York City area. Although it is not entirely certain how much of that sum would ultimately go to Gateway.
Funding in the bill for a transit grant program known as New Starts is limited to around $1 billion.
That amount would only be enough to cover 11 New Starts projects the U.S. Department of Transportation has already committed to by entering into “full funding grant agreements" with agencies in the places where those projects are taking place.
U.S. Rep. David Price, of North Carolina, who is the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said Diaz-Balart had done the best he could to guide the bill through the subcommittee under difficult circumstances.
"The real culprit," he said, "is the complete failure by Congress to address the main drivers of the deficit: tax expenditures and entitlement spending." Entitlement spending encompasses benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare.
"We've returned again, and again," Price added, "to appropriations, and especially critical domestic appropriations, to bear the whole brunt of deficit reduction."
The U.S. Conference of Mayors is pressing for $3.3 billion for the CDBG program, which provides a flexible source of funding for local governments to help cover costs ranging from renovating vacant buildings, to assisting the elderly and the homeless.
“We believe it’s a program that really needs significantly more funding,” said Allentown, Pennsylvania Mayor Ed Pawlowski during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday that was organized by the Conference of Mayors. He noted that CDBG funding was around $3.9 billion until 2010 and that $3.3 billion would be on par with the program’s 2011 funding level.
Costs that Pawlowski said CDBG dollars had been used to help pay for in Allentown have included services for the mentally disabled and programs to address lead hazards and rundown property.
Route Fifty asked Diaz-Balart if the mayors' push for $3.3 billion for the CDBG program was realistic.
“In 2017, we had $3 billion. I’ve got to do with the money that I have," he replied. "Look at the bill. Where do I take it out of?”
The lawmaker emphasized that there is "very strong support for CDBG funds. And that’s bipartisan support."
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOME investment Partnerships program, which provides states and localities with grants meant to support affordable housing, would receive $850 million under the bill, $100 million less than in the current fiscal year.
Preserving funding for Community Development Block Grants, the HOME Investment Partnership program and TIGER grants has been among the priorities for local government officials since Trump released his fiscal year 2018 budget proposal earlier this year.
The president’s spending plan called for eliminating funding for each of those programs, in addition to other sweeping cuts.
“The fact that we’re funding these programs at all represents a rebuke of the Trump administration,” Price said. “But we shouldn’t use the draconian Trump budget as a baseline for anything other than a warped vision of America.”
TIGER grants date back to 2009 and were created as part of Great Recession-era stimulus legislation.
Jeff Davis, a senior fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank, said that in recent years House appropriators have commonly chopped funding for the grant program only to have it put back by Senate lawmakers later in the legislative process.
“They know that the Senate will bail it out in conference and they'll get something else that the Senate doesn't want in exchange for it,” Davis said. “That's the way it routinely works.”
Diaz-Balart offered a similar take when asked for his thoughts on the proposed TIGER cuts. “I’m assuming that the Senate will probably have some money there," he said, referring to the program. "So I’m assuming that it’s going to be a conference issue.”
Commenting on TIGER during the mark-up session, Price said: “sometimes it seems the program’s only fault in the view of its critics is that it was established by President Obama.”
Part of the Gateway program involves building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. Amtrak and New Jersey Transit commuter trains traveling along the busy corridor provide service to Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan.
The rail tunnels now in service were built in 1910 and were damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. There are also plans to rehab these tunnels as part of the Gateway program.
Cost estimates were pegged at $12.9 billion for the tunnel project in a report the Federal Railroad Administration and New Jersey Transit issued last week.
Securing funding to help cover the cost of the Gateway program has been a priority for congressional lawmakers from New York and New Jersey. The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rodney Frelinghuysen, hails from New Jersey.
In the current draft of the House Appropriations bill, Gateway would qualify for two significant chunks of money.
There's up to $500 million that could be accessed through the Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair grant program. Davis said that while there are conceivably other projects that could be eligible for that $500 million, language in the bill seems tailored to Gateway.
Another $400 million would be available under the Capital Investment Grants program, a Transportation Department program for major transit projects. The $400 million would be provided under a subsection of the U.S. Code known as 5309 (q).
Davis explained that funding under this subsection is open to a limited range of projects that carry both Amtrak trains and mass transit. “For the short-term, that's only Gateway,” he said. “There's nothing else really in the pipeline right now that could get 5309 (q) money."
Diaz-Balart described the rail link in and out of New York City as an area of "dire need" that is a big part of the national economy and that he "purposely wanted to focus on.”
Providing money only for New Starts projects with full funding grant agreements aligns with a recommendation that U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao made last month.
Some of the projects with agreements in place include two sections of Los Angeles’ Westside Purple Line subway extension, the TEX rail commuter rail project in the Fort Worth, Texas area and a rail extension on the LYNX Blue Line in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Among the pending New Starts projects without full funding grant agreements as of June 19: light rail extensions in Phoenix and south of Seattle, the third phase of the Purple Line in Los Angeles, and a light-rail transit project in Maryland between Bethesda and New Carrollton, outside of Washington, D.C.
Diaz-Balart said New Starts was an "area that we’re going to continue to have to massage and work on.”
“Remember," he added, "this is the beginning of a very long, arduous process."
This post has been updated with additional details and comment.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.