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December 3, 2015

Congress passes long-term transportation bill

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For the first time in a decade, Congress has passed a bi-partisan, long-term (five-year) transportation bill that will provide certainty for states and regions to plan and deliver critical infrastructure. President Obama has indicated that he will sign the bill when it makes it to his desk.  The final compromise bill has changed only slightly from the separate House and Senate versions passed earlier.

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. Aerial. The United States Capitol is the meeting place of the United States Congress, the legislature of the Federal government of the United States. Located in Washington, D.C., it sits atop Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall.

Dave Williams, the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Vice President of Infrastructure & Government Affairs remarked, “We’re very encouraged to have a long-term federal transportation bill that GDOT and the metro Atlanta region can depend on.  Coupled with the courageous action our state legislators took to pass HB170 last session, Georgia will have the funding needed to upgrade and maintain our network of roads, bridges, ports and airports.  We still have work to do to fund meaningful transit expansion, and we’re optimistic to accomplish that soon as well.”

Highlights of the FAST Act:

  • The FAST Act is a five-year bill with no cuts to overall funding levels. This “fully funded” bill is balanced with significant general fund revenues, rather than increasing or indexing the federal gas tax.
  • The FAST Act maintains funding for public transportation, which was targeted for outright removal by the House in 2012.
  • The FAST Act provides a slight plus-up in funding over MAP-21 levels (estimated at about $10 billion over the life of the bill) by authorizing $230 billion for highways, $60 billion for public transportation, $10 billion for passenger rail and $5 billion for highway safety programs.
  • The FAST Act puts a five-year hold on “devolution” – ending the federal program outright and dumping all the responsibility on cash-strapped states and metro areas,
  • Transit-oriented development (TOD) projects will be eligible for the low-interest TIFIA and RRIF federal financing programs, due in part to the hard work of T4America, Smart Growth America and LOCUS over the last year.
  • For the first time ever, passenger rail is included in the surface transportation authorization. Passenger rail will still have to go through the general appropriation process each year for funding, but this positions it well for the long-term hope: including and funding passenger rail with guaranteed funds from a multimodal, 21st century transportation trust fund in the years ahead.
  • Local governments in larger metro regions will receive slightly more money to invest in their priority projects, with an increase in what’s known as suballocated funds by 1 percent per year of the bill, up to 55 percent in 2020.
  • By lowering the project cost threshold to $10 million (vs. $50 million today), locals have greater access to low-cost TIFIA loans, which opens the door to a wider range of project types in communities of all sizes, including complete streets, urban street retrofits, trails and other low-cost projects that are often the highest priority for local communities.
  • Funding for biking and walking preserved, but capped over the life of the bill. While the small but popular Transportation Alternatives Program that helps states and local communities build safe routes for biking or walking wasn’t eliminated, it’s one of the few programs where funding doesn’t grow with the overall increases in bill — it’s capped at $850 million.
  • A freight program for the first time. Freight moves across the country on every mode of travel imaginable and our freight issues are inherently multimodal, but Congress didn’t see it that way when they earmarked 90 percent of the funds in a new freight program for highway projects. The bill creates a discretionary grant program with $800 million this year, rising to $1 billion in 2020, and creates a new formula program with $1.15 billion in the first year rising to $1.5 billion in 2020.
  • The bill requires states and metro areas to analyze their freight movement and come up with a multimodal plan to improve things but then only provides funding to build highway solutions.
  • 70% cut to TIFIA loans. Just three years after MAP-21 increased the TIFIA loan program up to $1 billion, the FAST Act slashes it down to $275 million, leaving a far smaller pot for local communities to compete for.
  • Using tomorrow’s funding to pay for yesterday’s policies. Rather than increase transportation user fees to fill the ever growing gap between spending and gas tax receipts, Congress transfers $70 billion in non-transportation related general funds to pay for this bill and more revenue will be paying more.

Thanks to Transportation For America (t4america.org) for providing analysis of H. Rept. 114-357, the transportation bill conference report.

 

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