The U.S. House and Senate on Friday overwhelming approved a new surface transportation bill on that provides $105 billion for construction and safety programs through fiscal year 2014.
The legislation's passage comes after Republican and Democratic negotiators in both chambers used creative accounting within the federal budget
to shore up a projected gap of several billion dollars in the Highway Trust Fund and dropped demands on some key sticking points such as green-lighting the Keystone Pipeline project and maintaining funding levels for bicycle and pedestrian paths, and safe routes to schools.
It is packaged with a bill to maintain low-interest student loans.
The bill is much shorter than transportation advocates wanted, but the two year duration is considered a substantial improvement over the current practice of passing short-term extensions of the 2009 authorization bill that expired in 2009.
The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) bill includes language to streamline the approval process for projects that can take up to 15 years or more to complete, consolidate or eliminate federal programs, make programs more oriented to performance-based outcomes rather than simply providing money based strictly on formulas, and give states more flexibility to direct federal aid to high-priority needs.
Freight transportation interests expressed satisfaction that the legislation contains instructions for the Department of Transportation to develop a national freight policy and strategic plan for the first time, continues grant funding for Projects of National and Regional Significance, calls for an increase in the federal share for funding road freight projects, encourages the establishment of state freight plans and state-level freight advisory boards, and requires the DOT to complete a biennial freight conditions and performance report. It also addresses includes water transportation for the first time and acknowledges the need to maintain federal navigation channels to their authorized depths.
"This compromise legislation shows that Congress has been listening when we’ve made our case for supporting the systems that move our nation’s goods,” Mort Downey, chairman of the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors, said. “We see this as a good platform upon which future steps can be taken to further improve this critical network and its infrastructure.”
The Projects of National and Regional Significance competitive grant program targets large, multi-modal projects that cross jurisdictions and are important to national commerce. The program was scaled back to $500 million for one year and is subject to general fund appropriations rather than dedicated funding from the Highway Trust Fund.
The "Sense of Congress" language about dredging has little teeth, but acknowledges that only half of the Harbor Maintenance Tax fund is tapped for maintenance dredging and calls on the administration to request full funding in its budget requests.
"While this bill falls short of dedicating needed funding specifically for freight projects, it does create a framework upon which we can prioritize freight mobility needs and address congestion and capacity demands on America's freight network going forward," Jean Godwin, executive vice president of the American Association of Port Authorities, said in statement.
Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill "will provide a major boost to our economy by putting Americans back to work building our nation’s bridges and highways.
“‘Shovel ready’ became a national joke because projects get bogged down for years in the wasteful, bureaucratic project review process. The dramatic reforms in this measure will get projects moving by cutting the red tape that delays projects across the country and drives up construction costs," he said.
“This measure also shrinks the federal bureaucracy. Two-thirds of federal transportation programs are consolidated or eliminated, and states will be given more authority to focus on their most pressing needs and determine how to spend their resources. States will be given the opportunity to opt out of burdensome requirements to spend money on planting roadside flowers if they decide they need to invest more gas tax funds on improving roads and bridges," Mica added.
President Obama is expected to sign the bill early this week. - Eric Kulisch