May 08 2003

SHELBY HOLDS HEARING WITH SECRETARY MINETA TO DISCUSS FY 2004 DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION BUDGET

U.S. Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala), Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, and General Government, chaired a hearing today with Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta. The hearing focused on the Department of Transportation’s budget for FY 2004 and other issues. The following is Senator Shelby’s opening statement:

“Welcome, Secretary Mineta. We are pleased to see you here today. I know it has been a difficult year for you and I hope that the balance of 2003 is better.

I look forward to our discussion this morning on the Department of Transportation's fiscal year 2004 budget request. I hope we will also have an opportunity to uncover how the budget request relates to your authorization proposals and your other goals for the Department.

I first want to commend you for proposing a budget that does not impose any new user fees. With our economy struggling to recover, I believe that now would be the worst time to increase the burden on transportation users. Our goal should be to do more with less and to relieve unnecessary impediments to efficiency in the transportation system.

In addition, I look forward to obtaining greater detail about the proposal to establish a new $1 billion Infrastructure Performance and Maintenance program for highway projects that can be constructed quickly and how those funds would be allocated to enhance transportation systems and relieve congestion.

The budget request for the Federal Transit Administration proposes the most significant changes from previous fiscal years. I am skeptical that consolidation of programs and distribution by formula of transit dollars will improve the delivery of transit services or capital improvements. Formula fights can be distracting and the federal role in transit should be more than simply revenue sharing.

Instead, I believe that we should structure transit funding to improve rural connectivity; eliminate the bias toward rail capital projects; focus federal investment on those key projects that might not otherwise get built but have a significant impact; and put in place oversight procedures for early identification of the risks associated with project execution.

While funding for the highway program is not what I had hoped for and is less than what we provided in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, it is better than what a Revenue Aligned Budget Authority (RABA) -like mechanism would have provided and considerably better than some of the rumors that were circulating last December. Nevertheless, I believe that the highway obligation limitation needs to be increased, and I look forward to working with you to further that goal.

Other than that, I view this budget basically as a status quo budget.

I know that the Department was focused almost exclusively on TSA last year and on transitioning Coast Guard and the TSA to the Department of Homeland Security, but I did expect a bit more in this budget proposal on where you wanted to take the remainder of the Department.

I am as concerned about what is missing from the budget request as I am with what it includes. Highway fatalities are headed in the wrong direction, increasing for the fourth consecutive year, and just as troubling, alcohol-related accidents and fatalities increased again for third time in as many years.

Yet, there is no new initiative to increase seat belt use, reduce drunken driving, or to do anything differently at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) other than consolidating several existing state grant programs or shifting funds for grant programs from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to NHTSA.

I think that we can do better. Two years ago, Senator Murray and I provided funding for "click-it-or-ticket" campaigns. After struggling with NHTSA to get them to use the money, the program had a positive impact on the national seat belt usage rate. This shows why we need to make greater use of targeted, data-driven programs.

If they work, you will have my support to grow the initiative; if they don't, we will try something else, even if that means upsetting some of NHTSA's partners. The only thing that is not acceptable is to not try new things to reduce the carnage on our highways.

With regard to passenger rail, I must say that I am disappointed that once again, the Department has failed to provide the leadership that is necessary to transform Amtrak. While the Congress waits for a legislative proposal that embodies the principles of reform that you articulated last June, your representative on the Amtrak Board of Directors has supported a budget that is an all out effort to preserve the current, failed system.

Amtrak's budget assumes a federal subsidy that is twice as much as what was included in the President's budget, but does not contemplate even minor changes to the current structure. Amtrak's hostility to reform was further demonstrated when Amtrak's CEO abandoned his commitment to fully recover the cost of state supported lines as soon as private rail companies offered to provide the service for the states at a much lower cost.

In a similar vein, I have impressed upon both your predecessors and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator that something needs to be done to contain the cost growth at the FAA.

Over the last 9 years, the FAA operations budget has grown 65 percent, including a proposed 8.1 percent growth in the budget request for 2004. By comparison, aircraft operations -- the primary driver for FAA operations activity -- have declined 10 percent since 2000. In a budget constrained environment, it is unsustainable to have unchecked costs at the FAA.

This is a perennial item on the Inspector General's top ten management challenge list, yet nothing ever seems to get done. Like Amtrak, ignoring the issue of cost growth of the FAA's operation budget will not make it go away and is a disservice to the American taxpayer.

Finally, Mr. Secretary, I want to raise what I believe is an emerging challenge for the Department and the FAA: the economic, trade, and regulatory implications of a consolidated European Union Member States open skies or "open aviation area" concept.

Whether an "open aviation area" multilateral agreement is a good idea or not, I believe that the die is cast and that the European Union will be working in a much more coordinated manner with regard to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulatory and safety issues.

That presents enormous challenges and potential risks for the United States given the opportunity for mischief that can intentionally or unintentionally creep into standards consideration and creation.

This is an important and complicated area, and I encourage you to put some of your best people on it and to provide a clear and comprehensive statement of where you believe the United States should head in this regard in order to maintain our preeminence in aviation.

Mr. Secretary, we have an obligation to do better than just delivering the status quo and I look forward to working with you toward that end. It's good to see you again.”