BY MICHAEL SARGENT
Following on his pledge to eliminate wasteful and inappropriate federal programs, President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint delivers when it comes to the Department of Transportation.
Trump’s budget blueprint shears the Department of Transportation’s discretionary budget by $2.4 billion—some 13 percent—by slashing some of its most egregious programs. Although most of the department’s funding is classified as mandatory spending—which must be addressed in future budget plans—the blueprint tackles a number of the agency’s most problematic discretionary programs.
These seemingly small cuts represent a necessary and ambitious reform agenda that tackles many programs that Congress refuses to address and even protects for political gain. Indeed, The Heritage Foundation has advocated for these pro-market reforms perennially in our Blueprint for Balance and Blueprint for Reform.
First, the administration is proposing to eliminate subsidies for Amtrak’s long-distance routes, such as the California Zephyr which runs from Chicago to San Francisco. These long-obsolete routes only recoup half of their costs—requiring federal taxpayers to cover the gap—and are over 40 percent empty of passengers on average.
These federal subsidies are inherently wasteful given today’s abundance of non-subsidized transportation options.
The blueprint also axes the wasteful subsidies provided through the Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program. Originally intended as a “temporary” program to continue service to rural airports following air carrier deregulation in 1978, 40 years later it still spends about $300 million annually to prop up flights that are routinely empty.
Funding for the Essential Air Service has increased 600 percent in real terms over the last 20 years, and the subsidies often exceed $200 per passenger (even though many have a larger, unsubsidized airport within driving distance). The program exists solely to benefit a few lucky travelers at the expense of everyone else.
The blueprint also calls for ending the deleterious $2 billion Capital Investment Program (also known as New Starts) for projects that do not have a full funding agreement. New Starts provides grants exclusively for new transit projects (such as the streetcar in Tempe, Arizona and light rail in Portland, Oregon), providing a perverse incentive for localities to build expensive transit systems they can’t afford to operate or maintain.
Spending on these wasteful projects crowds out funding for much-needed maintenance of existing infrastructure.
Likewise, the administration finally eliminates the National Infrastructure Investment program (more commonly known by its original name, TIGER grants). This program—also intended to be temporary—doles out millions of federal dollars for local projects such as “downtown promenades” and bridges to nowhere, serving as an administrative replacement for the now-banned practice of earmarking.
Its popularity in Congress not withstanding (not surprisingly, spending other people’s money on pet projects is appealing to members), it is well past time for TIGER to go the wayside.
Finally, the administration’s most ambitious plan is to remove the U.S. air traffic control provider from the federal bureaucracy and establish it in an independent, non-governmental corporation.
The United States is one of the last developed nations to house its air traffic organization within its safety regulatory agency, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The result is that air traffic control—which should be a high-tech, dynamic business—is mired in bureaucracy and micromanaged by politicians.
Instead of being able to modernize effectively, the FAA has to rely on the cumbersome federal budget process and has squandered billions on bungling the implementation of its Next Generation (NextGen) air traffic control system.
By moving air traffic control out of the government and into the private sector, the administration has the potential to drastically improve air commerce for all American travelers and businesses.
Given the Trump campaign’s pledge to spend more on infrastructure, these reforms are a welcome sign that the administration intends on rightsizing the federal government’s role in transportation.
Though there is much more work to do—especially on the mandatory side of the budget—the administration’s refusal to go along with politics as usual for the Department of Transportation is refreshing, and above all, necessary for returning to constitutionally constrained government.
Michael Sargent is a research associate at Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.