Donald Trump's transportation budget: driving around in circles

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Donald Trump's transportation budget: driving around in circles

Donald Trump's transportation budget: driving around in circles
March 22, 2017

How will President Trump's proposed federal budget, released last Thursday, affect New York's investment in infrastructure, particularly transportation? The short answer is that it won't.

The 53-page blueprint contains big-picture spending cuts that are so unrealistic that even a Republican Congress would never pass it. At the agency level, though, the longer answer is that the proposed cuts are inconsistent as well as impractical – meaning that it's not clear what Trump wants to do. That's especially true with transportation.

Trump has already achieved a budget goal: headlines that signal to his supporters that he's “draining the swamp” while making us safe again. The budget would increase defense spending by $54 billion without adding to the deficit – meaning, as the president said, “insist[ing] on $54 billion in reductions to non-defense programs.”

Many of these cuts are dead on arrival, and indeed were dead before sending. The budget would eliminate $427 million to continue the rather non-controversial restoration of the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, for example. A month earlier, Republican representatives from those regions said that they wouldn't approve such a cut.

That one move alone makes up 16 percent of the president's cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet the president's staffers, if one ascribes political competence to them, proposed it knowing that it will never happen. This move indicates that the budget document overall is not a serious negotiating bid but a PR move.

The budget blueprint's section for the federal Department of Transportation, which makes grants to states and cities for federal infrastructure investment, offers similar poison pills, as well. To wit: the DOT would save $175 million by eliminating “Essential Air Service,” federally subsidized flights on rural routes that aren't economical otherwise for airlines.

Yet Elaine Chao, Trump's Secretary of Transportation, told the Senate in her confirmation hearing in January in response to Republicans' specific questions that “I look forward to working with the Congress on continuing the EAS program and finding ways in which we can improve it.”

New Yorkers should take note of this jarring misstep even though they don't need to worry about rural air service. Trump appointed Chao partly because of her expertise in dealing with Congress, both as a cabinet member in the George W. Bush administration (she was Labor Secretary) and as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's wife. But now the White House has proposed a cut for her department that she has already explicitly pledged to Congress would never happen. That is weird.

In addition to the political impossibilities, the Trump budget features ideological inconsistency. The blueprint's first mention of transportation is a tax increase on the middle class – odd for a president who has said he wants to cut taxes on the middle class.

How? The budget obliquely says that the White House will “restructure” the Transportation Security Administration user tax – that is, increase the $5.60 per one-way trip that passengers pay for airport security. The Trump staff elides over this tax hike by calling it a “fee,” as previous administrations have. But fees are for services that customers can turn down. Passengers cannot opt out of an airport screening.

This tax hike renders Trump's statement that, “defense and public safety spending increases … are offset and paid for by finding greater savings and efficiencies” incorrect. The fact that the White House, before its first 100 days are up, has already given up on making the TSA more efficient bodes poorly for such savings and efficiencies.

When the White House is not raising transportation taxes, it’s cutting transportation spending in a way that disproportionately harms New York. Overall, the president's budget would cut $2.4 billion from transportation – a 13 percent cut to discretionary spending, and a 2.6 percent cut to the department's full budget.

It would be one thing of Trump was simply cutting transportation spending across the board – that is, saying that New York will have to put up more of its own state and local funds for mass transit, and that Louisiana and Texas will have to put up more of their own funds for highways. In fact, such a proposal would benefit New York, by allowing it to keep more of its highest earners’ federal tax dollars at home, rather than sending that money to Washington to be distributed to other, poorer states.

But Trump doesn’t do that. Perhaps the most startling aspect of Trump's transportation budget is the proposal to end federal investment in mass-transit projects altogether, by gutting a grant program called “New Starts.” It is right there in the text: “future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” the budget says.

New York has relied upon these federal grants for big projects. The first three stops of the Second Avenue Subway got a $1.3 billion grant to defray the $4.9 billion cost. The state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants an additional $2 billion for the $6 billion second phase. The city wants at least a $75 million grant for its $231 million project to upgrade Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens for better bus service and for pedestrian safety. New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority, and Amtrak need a $10 billion federal grant to start work on a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The existing one, more than a century old and heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy, is both in a bad state of repair and inadequate for current demand.

Trump would also harm New York, as well as other dense cities, by killing a separate grant program for smaller projects. The smaller grants have helped fund New York City bike lanes and pedestrian projects when the City Council was skeptical of putting money into such experiments. That is why Mayor de Blasio said Tuesday that “President Trump's proposed budget would cut funding for Vision Zero,” the city's program to reduce traffic deaths. Again, it would be one thing if Trump proposed cutting an equivalent amount out of small-scale road projects. But this cut harms places where people get around on foot or by bike.

Yet, here, too, the glaring inconsistencies mitigate – or increase – the alarm. Earlier in the same budget, Trump tells us to ignore what it says about infrastructure. “The president has emphasized that one of his top priorities is modernizing the outdated infrastructure that the American public depends on,” the budget cautions, with more details to materialize “in the coming months.”

There’s nothing wrong with Trump wanting to design his own transportation program. But doing so will require months’ worth of negotiation with Congress. The law that authorizes the transit spending that Trump now wants to cut was signed in 2015 only after years of discussions between the Obama White House and Capitol Hill. Trump and Congress aren’t getting off to a fast start on infrastructure, instead focusing on healthcare. In the meantime, then, it doesn’t make sense to hold up a grant for the Hudson tunnel.

The conclusion? If you're worried that Trump's budget guts infrastructure investment, you should relax. The budget is too inconsistent both with itself and with the outside world to do much of anything at all, good, bad or neutral. Instead, the budget shows that the administration doesn't know what it wants to do or how to do it. An optimist would add the word “yet” to that sentence.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Twitter: @nicolegelinas. 

Nicole Gelinas
is a policy journalist in New York City who contributes regularly to the New York Post and Governing magazine.
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