New U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Reuters on Thursday there are “very active” conversations between the White House, Congress and stakeholders about including assistance to the struggling transportation sector, which has sought more than $130 billion in a COVID-19 relief bill.
President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal includes only $20 billion for public transit systems.
Airline unions are seeking $15 billion in payroll assistance while bus and ferry companies want $40 billion, state transportation departments have asked for $18 billion, Amtrak wants $1.5 billion, airports want $17 billion and public transit has asked for $39.3 billion.
“They should be all taken seriously because this is about making sure we get the transportation sector back on its feet,” Buttigieg said in a phone interview. “Just about everybody needs help getting back to pre-COVID levels.”
Buttigieg referred to Biden’s $20 billion transit proposal as the “initial conversations but those conversations are ongoing because we do want to make sure we’re supporting a robust return for the sector and supporting workers.”
Democratic leaders in Congress are likely to back $14 billion to extend the airline payroll support program for six months which would keep nearly 30,000 airline workers after the existing program expires on March 30 as well as additional funding for the sector, congressional aides and industry officials say.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA representing workers at 17 airlines, confirmed at a House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on Thursday that $14 billion was being discussed for airlines and $1 billion for contractors.
“Congress has to come up with more funds to support these workers,” Nelson said. “It is urgent that we get this done.”
Asked if Biden supports new airline assistance, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday, “the priorities of the president are already in the bill,” but added it could change as Congress debates it.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio referenced Psaki’s comments and said he has been “very vocal” about the need for new funding for airline workers, transit, private bus companies, contractors and others.
“Congress is an independent entity so we are going to accomplish (Biden’s) goals and some of our own,” DeFazio added.
American Airlines on Wednesday said 13,000 employees are at risk of furlough starting on April 1; United Airlines sent new furlough warnings to 14,000 employees.
Congress previously approved $40 billion in two rounds of prior payroll support.
Buttigieg said government needs to rebuild the transportation sector post-COVID-19 “with an eye to the future because every form of travel is evolving and the 2020s specifically I think will be a decade that has some of the swiftest changes and transformations that we’ve seen really in modern times.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Matthew Lewis)