Mr. Slater, let me first congratulate you again on your confirmation as the new Secretary of Transportation. You certainly have your work cut out for you. But I have every confidence in your ability to be an outstanding Secretary.
While I am disappointed that the Administration's ISTEA reauthorization bill has not yet been submitted to Congress, I welcome your being here today to answer our questions. If need be, we may need to hear from you again once the bill is before us.
IMPORTANCE OF ISTEA REAUTHORIZATION
Mr. Chairman, the reauthorization of ISTEA will one of the most important tasks this Congress will face. The next bill will have widespread implications for every American.
Whether you drive a car, take the bus or subway, or walk to work, virtually every one of us is reliant upon our transportation network in some way or another.
But we must remember that better mobility and quality of life our rests largely with our ability to adequately fund our transportation programs.
As I mentioned at our last ISTEA hearing, I was disappointed that the Administration's FY 1998 budget proposed a $500 million decrease in the highway program.
And I was further disappointed when I learned that the Administration's ISTEA reauthorization bill will be proposing authorization levels far below that which the Highway Trust Fund could sustain -- and these authorization levels decline each year of the bill.
It has been estimated that the balances in the Highway Trust Fund will be $44 to $48 billion at the end of the authorization period. That is unacceptable to me.
I have long been an advocate for spending these balances, plus the revenue we collect every year. We are cheating the American taxpayers every time we shortchange them in transportation spending.
We made a deal with motorists that the user fees they pay in federal fuel taxes would be used to improve our transportation system. Sadly, this has not been the case and it appears the Administration bill will come up short again.
That is unfortunate. While many of the priorities of the Administration you will discuss today deserve praise, without the necessary resources, these priorities will not be realized.
Enhancing and protecting the environment, increased safety spending, and welfare to work programs may suffer because funding is not available to achieve these goals and still maintain our thousands of miles of highways and bridges.
There is very broad support for increased transportation funding, from the highway industry, to labor, to the environmental community.
I can guarantee my colleagues that this may be one of the only areas during reauthorization where there is agreement among the competing interests. We should not lose this opportunity to capitalize on this consensus.
So with my colleagues on this Committee, I intend to continue to push the Senate Budget Committee to understand the importance of transportation spending. We all want to balance the budget and we will. But let's be smart about it.
Mr. Slater, I have other questions and concerns with the Administration's proposal. But I urge you to take this message back to the budgeteers.
And that is that there are real implications and a price to be paid with the funding levels being proposed. We have to look at the big picture and realize that other goals and priorities may be lost.