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 here.
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.