Miss. Senator States Support for Bridge, Airport Programs Zeroed Out in Biden Budget Request

VIDEO:  Senator Hyde-Smith Discusses Rural Needs in Review of Transportation Budget Review.
VIDEO:  Senator Hyde-Smith Questions Transportation Secretary Buttigieg.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In her new role as Ranking Member on the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) Appropriations Subcommittee, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) today outlined her priorities as the panel works to write a funding bill for the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).

The THUD Appropriations Committee on Thursday conducted a hearing to receive testimony from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on the $108.5 billion USDOT budget request for FY2024.

“We must ensure that our rural communities have adequate support from the federal government.  Rural communities face very unique challenges.  What works in larger urban areas often does not work in smaller rural areas like those all across Mississippi.  As such, we must formulate a funding bill that strikes a healthy balance to meet the needs of all Americans,” Hyde-Smith said.

While supporting requests to continue funding for the Essential Air Service program that benefits mid-sized communities and the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program to develop a safer rail network, Hyde-Smith was critical of the budget recommendation to end funding for programs like the RAISE grant program and Airport Improvement Program.

“I am disappointed to see that even with the proposed increased funding, this request zeroes out programs that are priorities for this subcommittee.  Specifically, this budget request zeroes out the RAISE grant program, the Bridge Formula Program, and the Airport Improvement Program supplemental funding,” Hyde-Smith said.

“Each of these programs have been very crucial for rural communities especially in states like Mississippi.  Some past projects I’d like to highlight include a RAISE grant award to Yazoo City, which will be used to make much needed infrastructure updates and revitalize their Main Street, and an Airport Improvement Program investment at Key Field in Meridian to rehabilitate the runway and install a runway guidance system that will improve safety and allow the airport to operate more efficiently,” the Senator said.

In questioning Buttigieg, Hyde-Smith covered issues ranging from runway incursions, railway safety, equipping FAA contract towers, and a truck driver apprenticeship program for 18- to 20-year-olds.

Hyde-Smith questioned low enrollment in a three-year Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program (SDAP) administered by USDOT to determine whether younger drivers can operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce safely.  Last month, only 21 carriers and four apprentices were enrolled in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) pilot program, which was designed to accommodate up to 1,000 carriers and 3,000 enrolled apprentices.

“Outside of this pilot, current law prohibits 18-20-years-olds from operating a Commercial Motor Vehicle in interstate commerce.  This means that a 20-year-old driver in Mississippi is allowed to drive more than 350 miles from Gulfport to Southaven, at the northern end of the state, but cannot drive the extra mile from Southaven to Memphis, Tennessee,” Hyde-Smith said.  “This makes little practical and economic sense to me.” 

“Some in the trucking industry have indicated that burdensome program requirements, which were not included in the DRIVE Safe Act nor the Infrastructure bill, are a major deterrent to carrier participation.  For example, the FMCSA requires participants to install inward-facing cameras on themselves in the vehicles, which raises legitimate concerns about privacy,” she continued.  “If the participation rate remains this low, it is unlikely that the pilot will provide enough credible data to inform future policymaking on this issue.”

In November 2021, Hyde-Smith and others asked the FMCSA to lower the age of eligibility from 21 to 18 for commercial driver’s licenses (CDL) in order to ease the shortage of commercial truck drivers in the United States.