Federal Transportation Policy Update

September 24, 2019

A significant portion of transportation spending in Massachusetts relies on federal dollars, which support roads, bridges, MBTA, RTAs, and more. It is essential for Massachusetts, and every state, that federal dollars continue coming in. However, federal funding for transportation largely supports roads, rather than transit, walking, and biking. Advocates that care about sustainable transportation must look for ways to push Congress to do better. Transportation contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, with levels continuing to rise, so a bill of this scale should prioritize lowering greenhouse gas emissions and reducing vehicle-miles traveled, while focusing on maintenance of existing road and bridge assets over expansions.

Federal transportation spending is authorized every few years, and some spending is then appropriated on a year-to-year basis. Authorization bills also include significant transportation policy changes. The authorization bill currently in effect, the FAST Act, is due to expire in September 2020.

While an extension (or multiple extensions) are very likely to punt the issue past the 2020 election, Congress has begun working on a new authorization bill. The first proposal, titled America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA) of 2019, came out in late July from the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. Three other Senate committees have jurisdiction over other parts of the authorization process (Finance, Banking, and Commerce committees), and the House has its own process as well. 

While AITA has some positive highlights and new programs, including a first-ever climate section, the vast majority of the bill is a continuation of the status quo of a car-centric transportation policy. Formulaic increases to road budgets dwarf the combined size of new programs that promote sustainability.

The national advocacy group Transportation for America has expressed similar concerns. As their Director Beth Osbourne said, these new programs “will be undercut by substantial funding increases for high-speed roadways in the base formulas without any additional constraints to improve safety.”

In addition to this continuation of the status quo, the bill would authorize spending at a level well above available dollars in the highway trust fund, with no clear path to close that gap. T4MA would support increasing the federal gas tax, which was last increased in 1993. Conversely, we would have serious concerns if this authorization is paid for using general funds and debt, one-time cost offsets, or other creative accounting gimmicks

Here are some quick facts  about the ATIA: 

  • It authorizes $287 billion over five years, a 27% increase over the FAST Act.
  • 90% of the bill is formula funds to states, using the same formulas as the FAST Act. 
  • New programs and provisions, including many positive steps that do not fundamentally change the overall impact of the bill:
    • Carbon Reduction Incentive Program, a formula-based program and a small competitive grant program for states that can be spent in a variety of ways including traffic monitoring systems, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, intelligent transportation systems (ITS), car-sharing, telecommuting, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, street light efficiency, and diesel-to-electric retrofits of public transportation vehicles. As a positive step, this program cannot result in new single-occupancy-vehicle capacity.
    • A Federal working group on integrating electric vehicles into the federal vehicle fleet
    • Funding for electric-vehicle charging and infrastructure grants.
    • A congestion relief program, supporting a variety of worthy investments including high-occupancy-toll lanes, parking pricing programs, congestion pricing, and carpooling incentives
    • An Accessibility Data Pilot Program, providing states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) with data and training to improve transportation planning by measuring the level of access via multiple transportation modes to key destinations for jobs, education, health, child care, and food sources.
    • The Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) grant program, including both formula and discretionary funds for resilience, coastal infrastructure, and evacuation routes. 
    • A community connectivity pilot program, providing federal funds to help restore connections that were lost due to past highway construction, an all-too common occurrence in American cities in the past 60 years. 
    • Continued and expanded federal efforts to encourage states to pilot and test implementation of mileage-based user fees.
    • Updates and expansions of the TIFIA loan program, a valuable credit assistance tool
    • ATIA also codifies the “one decision” executive order to speed up federal permitting
    • Finally, the bill makes wildlife-vehicle collision research newly eligible for funding.

Our friends at the Coalition for Smarter Transportation have helpfully posted online the text of the bill, summary, and additional resources here: http://www.smartertransportation.org/fast-act-re-authorization-resource-center/

The next year may be important for federal transportation policy, and we will work with our federal delegation and partners to make sure that this legislation truly moves us forward. Please contact T4MA’s Policy Director Charlie Ticotsky for more information.

  • Joshua Ostroff
    published this page in Blog 2019-09-24 13:57:50 -0400


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