Daines questions transportation secretary on airport funding, future of Amtrak

The future of Amtrak’s long-distance routes and airport infrastructure could be addressed in the Trump administration’s new transportation budget, though it may not all be pleasing, agency secretary Elaine Chao said Wednesday.

The release of federal transportation funding could also implicate airport projects planned in Montana, including Missoula International Airport and its new passenger terminal, which is now under construction.

“Our question was, with the government shutdown, what’s the new schedule for the release of those supplemental funds?” airport director Cris Jensen said this week. “We have airports and projects in the state of Montana that are impacted by this. We need to know when those funds are going to be released.”

With the Trump administration’s FY2020 transportation budget on the table, members of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development questioned Chao on a number of issues, from the grounded Boeing 737 Max to the future of Amtrak.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines expressed concerns over the latter, as Amtrak eyes reducing or eliminating some long-distance routes.

“Connectivity is a big deal for a state like Montana – we’re off the beaten path,” Daines said. “Recent news about Amtrak limiting or eliminating long-distance services are troubling.”

Chao said Amtrak is currently funded at roughly $1.5 billion annually, and she described some of its services as unsustainable. A growing number of passengers utilize the train for shorter segments, with few riding the cross-country route like the Empire Builder through Montana.

“I know the president of Amtrak is very concerned about the viability of long distance,” she said. “There’s a subsidy cost per head. Amtrak is trying to reassess how best to address the needs of these rural communities while maintaining mobility, but also think of some other way to reduce the subsidy.” 

Chao said that could take the form of bus service to cover shorter trips while some long-distance routes go away. She didn’t specify which routes could be considered for reductions or elimination.

By rearranging funding, she added, Amtrak may negotiate with state governments “to see if the states can be phased into taking a larger local share.”

“Amtrak’s plans to restructure the long-distance routes has not been met with great enthusiasm by many of the senators from states through which these trains run,” Chao said. “It’s also a fact the average subsidy per head for long distance is of concern, and it’s not sustainable.”

While Missoula International Airport had hoped to get answers on the release of supplemental funds delayed by the recent government shutdown, Daines focused his remaining time on staffing at air traffic control towers in Bozeman and Missoula.

The Bozeman airport is the state’s busiest with roughly 1.5 million annual passengers, followed closely by Missoula and its 900,000 annual passengers.

“Bozeman had to pay for a full-time controller out of their own budget, and Missoula is nearing the point where it will have to do the same thing,” Daines said. “Our airports in Montana have seen rapid growth in the last decade, with many of them expanding service. Unfortunately, the contract tower program doesn’t provide the flexibility needed to expand tower staffing.”

Chao said the program is regulated by the FAA.

“There is a volume factor that determines whether a new tower contract extends its hours and therefore the FAA bears the cost,” she said. “If they don’t meet the minimum, like 10 (operations) per hour, the FAA does not extend the hours.”

Daines’ press secretary later said the senator followed up on the timeline for the supplemental funding, as requested by Missoula International Airport.

“The Department of Transportation responded and said the supplemental funding is undergoing review and announcements can be expected mid to late April,” Julia Doyle told the Missoula Current. “Daines will continue pushing for Montana’s airports.”

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Delaware, also questioned Chao on the administration’s plans for Amtrak and how it planned to tackle the growing backlog of infrastructure needs in the nation’s transportation system, including its airports.

He said the Highway Trust Fund is insolvent and airports face more than $100 billion in infrastructure needs. One of the big challenges, he said, is the lack of revenue to fund that infrastructure.

“Do you and the president support raising the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised sine 1993, or lifting the cap of Passenger Facility Charges to help pay for airport improvements?” he asked. “We’re dramatically underfunding infrastructure in his country.”

Chao said all options will be considered.

“Nothing is off the table when we talk about the Highway Trust Fund,” she said. “There’s infrastructure discussions ongoing at the White House.”