A $12-billion high-speed rail system could transform transportation in the Lone Star State. Video by Patrick Gleason, Sohail Al-Jamea and Gordon Dickson Star-Telegram.com
A $12-billion high-speed rail system could transform transportation in the Lone Star State. Video by Patrick Gleason, Sohail Al-Jamea and Gordon Dickson Star-Telegram.com

Politics & Government

Trump proposes deep transportation cuts in rural regions that supported him

By Curtis Tate, Lindsay Wise and Anita Kumar

McClatchy Washington Bureau

March 16, 2017 04:03 PM

UPDATED March 17, 2017 11:09 AM

WASHINGTON

President Donald Trump, who has promised to make a $1 trillion investment in the nation’s infrastructure, has proposed $2.4 billion in cuts to federal transportation programs that fund air and rail service and road and transit projects.

The cuts would disproportionately affect rural communities that voted for him, and the Republican lawmakers who represent those states and districts may oppose the plans.

Trump’s budget takes the controversial step of removing air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration and spinning it off to a private, nonprofit corporation.

Trump would eliminate subsidies for long-distance passenger trains and commercial flights to rural communities. Both could isolate small towns with few transportation options.

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Trump would freeze transit funding for projects in major cities and eliminate funding for a popular grant program established under former President Barack Obama that states and cities have used to build recreational trails, fix streets and rail lines and bring back streetcars.

It would also abolish a 50-year-old program that built nearly 3,000 miles of improved highways in Appalachia, one of the most economically distressed parts of the country. The region, stretching from Pennsylvania to Georgia, helped deliver Trump the presidency.

Trump has yet to reveal the specifics of his $1 trillion infrastructure proposal or how he plans to pay for it. But it’s widely anticipated that he’ll lean heavily on private-sector funding with Congress unlikely to provide a substantial sum of federal investment.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said not to discount the administration’s infrastructure proposal, despite the cuts in the budget.

“People might say, well, goodness gracious, that doesn’t line up with what the president said about a commitment to infrastructure,” Mulvaney said. “That was done intentionally.”

Mulvaney said the reductions were made because the administration believes them to be less efficient than the infrastructure package that it’s working on for later on this year.

“So what we’ve effectively done is try to move money out of existing, more inefficient programs,” he said, “and hold that money for what we expect to be more efficient infrastructure programs later on.”

But critics say the Trump blueprint sends a troubling signal on infrastructure.

“It’s flatly inconsistent with Trump’s promise throughout the campaign that he would devote more money for infrastructure investment,” said Katie Thomson, former general counsel to the Department of Transportation and the FAA in the Obama administration. “It doesn’t grapple with the long-term funding needs of this country.”

Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel to the AFL-CIO, wondered if the right hand knew what the left hand was doing.

“These cuts are going to be harmful to any infrastructure agenda,” he said. “You can’t invest in American infrastructure and simultaneously disinvest from the organizations and people that know how to do it.”

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While Trump may find support in Congress, he’ll also encounter opposition, or at least skepticism, at times from members of his own party.

“A variety of different, individual transportation programs help keep rural, urban, and suburban communities connected as efficiently as possible,” said Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who chairs the subcommittee on highways and transit in the House. “That important fact will not be forgotten as Congress works to pass a budget that balances our priorities with the president’s.”

Graves is also a pilot who chairs the House’s general aviation caucus. Last year, he was one of only two Republicans in the House Transportation Committee to vote against a bill that would have taken control of U.S. airspace out of the FAA.

Countries such as Canada have already taken this step, and it is supported by major airlines and their trade groups. But builders of private and business aircraft oppose the change, as do airports in the smaller communities that depend on general aviation.

Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, who represents a state with a heavy general aviation manufacturing base, is another opponent of the change.

Moran’s office said he was reviewing Trump’s budget plan.

Trump would also eliminate Essential Air Service, a program that has supported commercial flights to small and rural communities for nearly four decades. The cities affected would include Merced, California, and Macon, Georgia, and six communities in western Kansas.

The flights the program supports “are not full and have high subsidy costs per passenger,” Trump’s budget summary says.

Rachelle Powell, the director of aviation of the Garden City Regional Airport in southwest Kansas, said her airport is an exception.

“We do have daily, full flights,” she said.

Service is currently provided by American Airlines’ regional service, American Eagle, which operates two daily roundtrip flights from Garden City to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The $18 per passenger subsidy is the lowest among four Essential Air Service airports in western Kansas.

Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority, said he couldn’t contemplate elimination of the program, which supports two daily flights from Salina to Denver operated by Great Lakes Airlines. Its fate is up to Congress, he said.

“I will say that each Kansas community that benefits from air service made possible by the EAS program is able to provide a higher quality of life for residents and certainly makes the communities economically active and more vibrant,” Rogers said.

Garden City is also served daily by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, a train that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. But Trump’s budget threatens the train and the track it runs on.

Trump would eliminate TIGER, a DOT grant program started under Obama’s economic stimulus of 2009. The program has helped build rail, road and transit projects and has proved popular with mayors and governors, both Democrats and Republicans.

Lexington, Kentucky, got $14 million from the program last year to complete a network of bike and pedestrian trails and safety improvements. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, received nearly $10 million to rehabilitate a freight rail line connecting two states.

Kansas City got $20 million to build its downtown streetcar, which opened a year ago.

TIGER enabled repairs to deteriorating tracks used by the Southwest Chief in Kansas and Colorado. The grants kept the train from being rerouted or canceled. But under Trump’s proposal, support for the grant program and the train service itself would disappear.

Trump’s plan would reduce Amtrak to the Northeast Corridor and short-distance routes supported by states such as California, Washington, Missouri, Illinois and North Carolina.

Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains, among them the Southwest Chief, “have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses,” Trump’s 62-page budget blueprint states.

Trump’s budget plan would limit federal transit investment to existing projects. Projects that are under construction with federal funds, such as Charlotte’s Blue Line light rail extension in North Carolina and Fort Worth’s TEX Rail, should see no change.

However, projects that had not yet entered an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration, such as the Sacramento Downtown Riverfront Streetcar and the Kansas City Prospect MAX Bus Rapid Transit route, could be left without federal support.

“Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” Trump’s budget outline states.

Trump’s budget blueprint also abolishes the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has built nearly 3,000 miles of new highways since 1965 in a 13-state region, including Kentucky, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Democrat Hillary Clinton had campaigned on a pledge to finish the final portions of the Appalachian highway system.

Eastern Kentucky has the largest concentration of counties the commission calls “distressed,” and Trump carried them all. But his budget proposes to eliminate a program that built more miles of new highway in Kentucky than in any other Appalachian state.

Jerry Siebenmark of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this story.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise