• ITVI.USA
    14,255.530
    -14.610
    -0.1%
  • OTRI.USA
    22.660
    0.190
    0.8%
  • OTVI.USA
    14,245.400
    -13.510
    -0.1%
  • TLT.USA
    2.780
    -0.010
    -0.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    2.650
    -0.300
    -10.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.280
    -0.100
    -3%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.460
    -0.040
    -2.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    2.490
    -0.200
    -7.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    1.970
    0.010
    0.5%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    2.990
    -0.310
    -9.4%
  • WAIT.USA
    127.000
    0.000
    0%
  • ITVI.USA
    14,255.530
    -14.610
    -0.1%
  • OTRI.USA
    22.660
    0.190
    0.8%
  • OTVI.USA
    14,245.400
    -13.510
    -0.1%
  • TLT.USA
    2.780
    -0.010
    -0.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    2.650
    -0.300
    -10.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.280
    -0.100
    -3%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.460
    -0.040
    -2.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    2.490
    -0.200
    -7.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    1.970
    0.010
    0.5%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    2.990
    -0.310
    -9.4%
  • WAIT.USA
    127.000
    0.000
    0%
American Shipper

House committee approves multi-year transport bill just one week ahead of deadline

The surface transportation reauthorization includes dedicated funding to support projects associated with goods movement, but doesn’t go far enough to address the growing infrastructure deficit in the United States, according to transportation advocates.

   The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday unanimously passed a six-year, $325 billion bill that would reauthorize federal transportation programs, including highway and bridge construction aid, and for the first time include guaranteed, dedicated funding for freight-related infrastructure projects.
   But the legislation doesn’t go far enough to address the growing infrastructure deficit in the United States, according to transportation advocates. The Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act maintains flat funding, plus small increases for inflation, without addressing the hole in the Highway Trust Fund or the growing backlog of projects needed to curb congestion and maintain safe roadways.
   During the summer, Congress passed another short-term extension of the two-year MAP-21 authorization that expired last year, continuing a pattern of dipping into general Treasury funds for money to make up for the shortfall of motor fuel tax receipts being collected in the Highway Trust Fund as more fuel-efficient cars and inflation erode the per-gallon fee assessed at the pump. There remains little consensus among lawmakers about how to come up with billions of dollars needed to close the gap between obligations to states and trust fund revenues, with few willing to raise the gas tax despite the fact that it has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 cents for diesel) for 22 years.
   According to the Congressional Budget Office, a $90 billion shortfall is expected between highway user fee receipts and full funding of surface transport improvements over the course of a six-year bill. The Highway Trust Fund collects about $16 billion less per year from gas and diesel taxes than the Department of Transportation spends on transportation projects each year. There is an $808 billion backlog of investment needs on highways and bridges, including $479 billion in critical repair work, according to the DOT.
   Hardcore conservatives don’t want to raise taxes, or increase government borrowing, and many Democrats are reluctant to cut other programs to make increased transportation revenue-neutral in the budget. Construction and safety programs have been kept going through a series of short-term extensions since 2009 and Highway Trust Fund bailouts from the Treasury, but the extensions essentially maintain programs at status-quo levels. About 30 percent of the money to fund the STRR Act potentially could come from general revenue.
   President Obama and lawmakers such as John Delaney, D-Md., are pushing for corporate tax reform that would allow companies to repatriate overseas profits and use taxes on them for a one-time infusion of money for infrastructure investment, but some Republicans oppose the idea. There are also concerns in some congressional quarters that calls for diverting Customs fees for transport funding will undermine the ability of CBP to fully staff ports of entry.
   An amendment in the STRR Act would allow additional revenue to be distributed for transportation without Congress having to pass another authorization bill within six years.
   The legislation now goes to the full House for a vote, which would clear the way for a House-Senate conference to resolve differences with the Senate’s DRIVE Act, which was passed this past summer. The DRIVE Act would authorize about $43 billion a year, or $258 billion over six years. In reality, however, the bill only includes funding for three years because senators could not agree on how to fund the remaining three years beyond baseline levels.
   Congressional leaders are targeting action by next month, but would need to pass another short-term transportation measure since the current funding is scheduled to expire Oct. 29. Capitol Hill insiders suggest a three or four week extension is needed to conclude negotiations and vote on a bill that President Obama can sign because the bills are similar enough.
   There is widespread consensus on the need for a long-term bill, but lawmakers appear willing to vote on another stop-gap measure knowing the finish line may now be in sight.
   The real advances between the current bills and past transportation legislation have to do with freight policy and funding.
   Historically, states have decided how to use federal highway aid and the money is typically used for maintaining and improving interstates, major roadways and bridges without much consideration for projects that would improve the movement of trucks and railroads hauling goods. The 2009 stimulus bill ushered in the popular TIGER program under which municipalities, counties, port authorities, metropolitan planning organizations and others can compete for grants awarded at the discretion of the Department of Transportation for projects that meet outcome-based criteria such as safety, environmental sustainability, economic and community development, and road repair.
   A significant portion of TIGER grants have been doled out for multi-modal and freight-related projects. But the program is relatively small – more than $4.5 billion over six years – and relies on the good will of Congress to annually appropriate money for the program because it presently isn’t statutorily required.
   The STRR Act includes $4.5 billion for “Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects,” including railway-highway crossings and grade separation projects to be distributed through a competitive grant process, with as much as $500 million available for projects on other modes. The program resembles the Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS) that was created in the 2005 SAFETEA-LU law, in which projects were awarded through congressional earmarks.
   Congressional leaders have banned earmarks in recent years, making it more difficult for lawmakers to reach consensus on funding levels. The PNRS program was reauthorized in MAP-21, but was subject to appropriations and never received any funding.
   Congress would retain oversight ability over DOT grant decisions under the STRR Act.
   The bill also would create a multi-modal freight policy and increase the nation’s designated Primary Freight Network from 27,000 to 41,000 highway miles.
   The Senate bill has both a large formula grant program for freight (about $11 billion) as well as a $2.2 billion discretionary grant program. 
   “We have a nationally connected freight system and we have to invest in that in order to maintain our competitiveness in the world marketplace,” Leslie Blakey, president of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, said during a Capitol Hill meeting with reporters on Wednesday.
   CAGTC members spent the day lobbying lawmakers to support a long-term transportation bill with freight provisions and the organization has organized a letter-writing campaign on behalf of the bill, which is also supported by other business groups such as the National Retail Federation and the American Association of Port Authorities.
   Some lawmakers and business groups are concerned about the aggregate cap of $500 million, or 10 percent, in the House freight program for multi-modal projects. 
   “We think that needs to be a much larger percentage or perhaps have the cap removed all together,” Blakey said. “Part of the reason for having a discretionary grant program with objective, merit-based criteria is that you can bring anything to the table and if you can prove the benefits to the public, you’ve got a good rationale for investment. So having caps isn’t a good idea because you might restrict projects that are very worthy.
   “The good thing about a discretionary grant program is that it allows for a marketplace for investment opportunities and you can judge those against how well they perform for the public.”
   Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., complained that since taxpayers, not just highway users, are increasingly supporting highway investments that more money should be available for non-highway projects. 
   “We should let all projects compete and award funding based on need, not game the selection process with arbitrary caps and set asides. I would prefer no cap, but if you’re going to insist upon one, it should certainly be higher than it is,” Nadler said during the T&I Committee markup session.
   Freight advocates say they hope to strengthen freight provisions during the House-Senate conference process.
   CAGTC has long called for freight programs to be funded through a sustainable source of revenue, namely some form of user fee. Blakey said there is not enough time in the current process to reach consensus on how to establish such a fee, so it likely will have to wait until a future authorization bill, along with how to find more revenue for the Highway Trust Fund.
   Policy reforms included in the STRR Act address streamlining environmental review and permitting processes to accelerate project delivery, promoting innovating financing and providing greater flexibility to states and local governments to address needs. One such provision, for example, would create a pilot program to empower states to use their own existing environmental laws and regulations instead of National Environmental Policy Act if they are substantially equivalent. 
   Ultimately, the House bill can only progress if the Ways and Means Committee comes up with the money. The T&I Committee’s contribution only covers policy and authorizing spending.