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Secretary Chao explains requested budget cuts during House hearing

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao answered another round of funding questions during a House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. Chao addressed concerns regarding budget cuts, automation and rural highways.

On Wednesday, April 10, the House Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development subcommittee held a hearing about the DOT’s budget request for fiscal year 2020, the first such hearing since the White House released its budget request that reduces the department’s funding by about 20% compared with FY 2019.

Democrats on the committee were clearly upset with the funding reduction. During opening statements, Chairman David E. Price, D-N.C., expressed his concerns about what he sees as a lack of funding.

“Overall, this budget is a far cry from what is necessary to move our country forward, and it doesn’t reflect the rhetoric we hear from the department about taking a ‘safety first’ approach,” Price said.

Committee on Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., noted that Congress has had to step up to the plate due to cuts from President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Frankly, I am unimpressed by your budget request,” Lowey said. “Twice the administration has proposed cuts that would shortchange our national infrastructure, and twice Congress has responded by passing responsible funding levels. Please do better next time.”

Chao addressed the concerns of Price and Lowey.

“Some have noted that the President’s FY 2020 budget request is about 20% less than the FY 2019 enacted appropriations for discretionary programs,” Chao said. “While this is technically true for a relatively small subset of the budget, it is misleading and does not tell the whole story.”

Chao went on to explain that when comparing the president’s budget request for FY 2019 and FY 2020, the latter actually provides an overall 8.9% increase. Compared to the FY 2017 enacted level, prior to the budget cap deal increases, the overall increase for FY 2020 is almost 8%.

Although a lot of time was spent discussing concerns about recent incidents involving the Boeing MAX 8 and the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification and inspection process, committee members discussed a wide area of topics. However, Chao never committed the DOT to any specific requests, stating that “everything is on the table.”

Two popular topics outside of FAA-specific issues were automation and rural areas. Regarding automation, Chao said the issue is less about funding for the DOT and more about the agency taking a leadership role. With private industry driving research, the DOT should be poised to set rules and regulations.

Chao emphasized the importance of injecting money into rural areas after several committee members cited high levels of fatalities on rural highways. The DOT secretary said that the Obama administration had focused its funding on urban areas. The Trump administration is shifting that focus to rural areas.

Many of Chao’s answers were generalized, rather than detailed. When asked about air quality and emissions, Chao only stated that funding and grants are available without getting into specifics. Even when it came to the bipartisan issue of port funding, Chao had an ambiguous response.

“When projects are worthy, and they are well put together, supported by the community, we will of course consider them,” Chao said.

The President’s budget requests nearly $84 billion for the DOT. About 75% of the request fully funds surface transportation for the final year of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. The remaining 25% of the request funds several high priority investments and reforms, intended to strengthen programs while making them more efficient.

Other than the DOT Secretary’s office, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is the only department reflecting an increase in funding in the White House’s budget request.

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