The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee on Monday proposed a six-year surface transportation bill that calls for spending roughly $300 billion for highway and bridge infrastructure, transit and safety programs, and the creation of a new, dedicated grant program for freight-related projects.
The bill, which will be amended and voted on by the committee on Thursday, maintains status-quo baseline funding for federal aid highway and transit programs plus inflation, which comes to about $50 billion per year. President Obama recently delivered a $302 billion plan to Congress to reauthorize the 2012 MAP-21 transportation legislation that expires at the end of September, but the administration's plan is for a period of four years. The Senate version essentially would provide $25 million less per year than the president's plan.
But the Senate transportation plan
doesn't provide new revenue sources for the faltering Highway Trust Fund, which is projected to run out of money in August. The HTF is the repository for highway user fees, primarily the gas and diesel tax, which are used to fund highway and bridge maintenance and new construction. The shortfall has already caused states to pull back from starting new projects because they are unsure when, or if, the federal government will reimburse them. Without supplementing the fuel tax, it is likely Congress will have to transfer money again from the Treasury to the HTF to maintain its solvency and cover existing obligations to states for projects already started or completed.
There is diminishing optimism in Washington that a transport bill can be voted on and approved by Congress this year. There is growing acceptance that Congress will have to temporarily plug the HTF to keep the highway program going, but Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Tuesday morning said at a Bloomberg Government panel discussion that he remains optimistic and that having a bipartisan bill is a big step forward.
The transportation spending blueprint establishes a formula-based freight program, which would provide funds to all states for freight infrastructure on key corridors. States would have flexibility to designate for funding urban and rural roads important for goods movement beyond the federal Primary Freight Highway Network being developed by the Department of Transportation.
Re-funding the Projects of National or Regional Significance program is also likely to appeal to freight stakeholders. The grant program was continued in MAP-21, but Congress didn't appropriate any money for it.
The administration's plan would provide $10 billion dedicated to multimodal freight, with $5 billion distributed through a two-tiered incentive grant program for states. Some money would be distributed through a formula and some through competitive grants
On the reform front, the Senate bill includes provisions to improve the transparency of how and where transportation projects are selected and funded, and how the Federal Highway Administration oversees projects and achieves national goals.
The bill also provides $1 billion per year in loan capacity for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, and allows more flexibility to states and local governments on the types of projects for which they can apply for loans.
It also initiates a program to reward states and local governments with extra funding if they demonstrate ability to deliver projects ahead of schedule and under budget. Other provisions further push the government to accelerate the permitting process.