The push for transportation reauthorization has begun, with
approximately 15 months before the current authorizing legislation – the FAST
Act – expires. This early start to the process can be ascribed to two systemic
challenges Congress faces in getting a final bill across the finish line.
First, the transportation reauthorization is a complex piece of legislation, under
the jurisdiction of four committees in the Senate and two in the House. It is
also a large program with a fading source of revenue, which requires Congress
to find a funding patch every time it enacts a new, long-term authorization.
This time around, the gap between anticipated Highway Trust Fund revenues and
desired spending levels is expected to be $100 billion or more, which needs to
be transferred from general Treasury funds and somehow offset with new revenues
or spending cuts.
The second systemic challenge Congress faces is a simple one
of timing: voting for the 2020 Presidential election will take place just over
a month after the current authorization expires. The politicking, of course,
will begin much sooner. Neither side will want to hand the other a substantial
victory too close to an election, and both sides could be wary of spending
hundreds of billions of dollars (to say nothing of raising the federal fuels
tax), unsure of how it will swing voters.
That brings us to the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee’s proposed highway title (transit, rail, and other items will be added later by other committees), which is a five-year, $287 billion bill. As is often the case with transportation bills, there is much for both sides to point to as advancing their policy agendas. This is part of the reason it passed out of committee on a unanimous 21-0 vote. On one side is project permit streamlining, increases to the National Highway Performance Program, and rural-focused provisions regarding safety and bridge repair. On the other side is a new climate title, safety and funding provisions for bicycle and pedestrian projects, and a new program to combat congestion in the nation’s largest urban areas.
The EPW bill maintains the existing structure of the federal
transportation program. This is, overall, a positive. There are only minor
changes made to the law as it applies to planning and the Congestion Mitigation
and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. One change we had advocated for was an increase
in the portion of the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program (STBGP) that
is provided directly to local areas through their metropolitan planning
organizations (MPOs). Though this share will remain at 55%, we were pleased at
changes to the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), including an increased
share for local projects (57.5%, up from 50% presently) and broader eligibility
to include MPOs in urbanized areas under 200,000 population. In addition, two
new programs created in the EPW bill for resilience and safety require
suballocation of funds and create incentives that would allow a portion of
those funds to be used as STBGP funds if certain criteria are met.
A notable aspect of the EPW bill is the sheer number of new
programs that it would create, covering a broad range of topics including wildlife
crossings, bridge investments, safety, charging and alternatives fuel
infrastructure, carbon reduction, congestion relief, resilience, and more. This
is an interesting shift in approach, with the current FAST Act bill sticking
mainly to the approach initiated in the MAP-21 authorization which consolidated
the program from more than 100 programs to just a handful.
If you want to learn more about what the bill contains, NARC
has prepared a number of resources that will be helpful, including a section-by-section
analysis and a broader
overview of some of the most relevant portions. In addition, NARC will be
hosting a webinar on Tuesday, August 13 at 3:00 PM ET and you can register
As one Senator said during the committee discussion, the committee passage of this bill is the “end of the beginning” of the process. We’ll still need to see what the Senate Commerce and Banking committees develop for their portions of the bill, and that combined package will need to make it through the full Senate. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is also likely to develop its own proposal, though it is unclear when it might release something. And the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees have perhaps the toughest job of all, which is coming up with a way to pay for the whole package.