House Panel Approves FY16 USDOT Budget

May 14, 2015

The House Appropriations Committee yesterday approved the fiscal 2016 appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development yesterday by a party-line vote of 30 to 21. Like other markups of the committee this year, the discussion was as much about the overall appropriations total for the upcoming year as it was about the specifics of the Transportation-HUD bill.

Because the post-sequestration Budget Control Act spending total for all non-defense accounts for 2016 is set at $493.5 billion, the THUD bill’s share of that total is set at $55.1 billion (another $186 million for the Maritime Administration in the bill is defense spending subject to a separate cap). This puts the discretionary spending total in the bill at $1.5 billion below the flat-lined 2015 level once inflation factors in housing costs are taken into account (even though, in nominal terms, the budget total is $1.5 billion more than 2015).

New subcommittee chairman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) said that because of the low allocation, he was forced to make “strategic reductions to capital accounts” so that he could come as close as possible to full funding of operational accounts, and he also said that the bill did not fund any proposed new programs.

Democratic opposition to the bill in committee centered around the strategy being pushed by the White House – it focused on the need to increase the $493.5 billion non-defense cap (the cap was referred to as “self-imposed austerity” by subcommittee ranking member David Price (D-NC)) and suggested that all bills written to that current law cap number will have problems passing the House and will in any event be vetoed by the President if they ever reach his desk.

Full committee ranking member Nita Lowey (D-NY) said that until Congress and the President strike another deal like the 2013 Ryan-Murray law that provided two years of spending cap increases (FY 2014 and 2015) in exchange for spending cuts and fee increases elsewhere in the budget, pursuing appropriations bills written at the current cap level is a waste of time.

There was, however, plenty of discussion of the specifics of the bill. Criticism of funding levels focused on rail funding in light of the fatal Amtrak derailment the night before in Philadelphia. While almost all legislators were careful not to prejudge the cause of the accident, Democrats did state that failure to provide adequate capital support for Amtrak was unlikely to actually improve safety. And there were criticisms of two types of policy-based “riders” in the bill – a series of provisions loosening restrictions on trucks and trucking companies (Lowey said that “Christmas came early for the trucking industry” this year) and two provisions that would ban USDOT from approving travel between the U.S. and Cuba by plane or boat.

Price offered two amendments. The first was a “global” amendment beefing up capital accounts in the bill (six at DOT and six at HUD) to the levels requested by the President. The amendment would have increased the TIGER, FAA F&E, Amtrak capital, FTA new start, and WMATA grant accounts from a collective $5.4 billion in the base bill to $9.7 billion and would have added another $2.3 billion for the high-speed and intercity passenger rail grant account that Congressional Republicans killed in 2011. Price admitted that his amendment did not contain any offsetting spending cuts that would keep the bill’s total spending below the allowable $55.3 billion total (Price said that the spending caps have to be challenged and that it was better to do it now than later). Price also noted that, two years ago, it was the Transportation-HUD bill that failed to pass on the House floor due to low spending levels, which forced the negotiations that eventually led to the Ryan-Murray law. Price’s first amendment failed by a party-line vote of 21 yeas to 29 nays.

Price’s second amendment proposed to strike all five trucking industry riders from the bill (sections 124 (Idaho truck size and weights), 125 (dual 33-foot trailers), 126 (Kansas agricultural exemption), 132 (revising hours of service study) and 134 (liability insurance coverage) of the bill). There was an extensive back-and-forth discussion of the provisions, particularly section 132 (which Price said would cause DOT to have to completely scrap the ongoing study of the hours of service rulemaking that was mandated by last year’s Transportation-HUD bill and start over) and 134 (which Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) said was necessary to keep insurance premiums on individual trucks from rising by as much as $15,000 per year). The amendment to strike the trucking provisions failed by a vote of 20 yeas to 31 nays.

There was more discussion of Amtrak funding in light of the recent accident. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) offered an amendment to increase Amtrak capital and debt service funding from the $850 million in the bill to the President’s requested level of $2.2 billion (with no offset), which also failed by a party-line vote of 21 to 30. And Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) offered an amendment to provide $825 million grants to railroads to implement positive train control (the amount requested by the President in the GROW AMERICA bill), with no offset, which also failed by a party-line vote of 21 yeas to 29 nays.

(Ed. Note: Several legislators mentioned that the 2008 RSIA law that contained the December 31, 2015 PTC mandate also authorized the federal government to make grants to railroads (freight and passenger) to defray the costs, and only $50 million of those grants were ever appropriated. But a closer look at section 105 of the RSIA law reveals that the law only authorized $250 million in grants over the 2009-2013 period, which indicates that the authorizing committees that wrote RSIA either had no earthly idea how much PTC would cost or else intended that the railroads shoulder almost all of the cost burden. The President’s GROW AMERICA bill proposes $3.1 billion in PTC implementation grants over the FY 2016-2021 period to meet a deadline that will already have passed before FY 2016 begins.)

One surprise amendment relating to rail safety was quickly adopted with almost no debate. Lowey offered an amendment to amend section 130 of title 23, United States Code, to increase the annual highway contract authority set-aside for rail-highway grade crossing improvements from $220 million per year to $350 million per year, which passed by voice vote. It remains to be seen whether or not the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over title 23, will challenge this provisions when the bill goes to the House Rules Committee. (Several of the trucking industry riders also invade T&I jurisdiction, but those appear to have been pre-cleared with the authorizing committee.)

Two amendments to change funding levels in the bill actually did have offsetting spending cuts and were adopted by the committee by voice vote. Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA) offered an amendment to increase funding for grants to the DC-area transit system (WMATA) by $25 million, which brings the total to $100 million (still short of the $150 million provided last year and requested this year). The amendment was offset by a $22 million cut in FAA overhead expenses and a $3 million cut in FTA administrative expenses). And Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) got a $3.6 million increase in the appropriation for the St. Lawrence Seaway (taking the total to last year’s enacted level), offset by a matching cut in Maritime Administration operations.

Other amendments offered included a Lee (D-CA) amendment to strike the two Cuba travel bans from the bill (her amendment failed by voice, but this is one that will be settled on the House floor anyway when the bill gets there) and a Culberson (R-TX) amendment to allow a proposed Houston light rail project to move forward if a new local election is held that approves the project (adopted by voice vote).

The committee also adopted a bipartisan managers’ amendment offered by Diaz-Balart that makes technical changes to the bill and also adds back a provision from the last several years of DOT appropriations laws that would prevent the FAA from changing weight rules or prior permission rules at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. The managers amendment also added some new report language to the committee report, and the amendment was adopted by voice vote.


The explanatory committee report accompanying the bill (prior to the changes made by the managers amendment) can be found here. The text of amendments adopted in the markup are here. Roll call votes will be published when the committee report is filed.

Details of the $355 million in cuts to the requested FAA Facilities and Equipment budget are below. To view five pages of updated tables giving details of the bill that reflect actions taken by the full committee during the markup, see pages 10-14 of the PDF version of this issue, here.


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