Federal Surface Transportation Debate Shifts Into High Gear

Just before heading off for the August recess, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee kicked off congressional reauthorization of the nation's surface transportation law with a unanimous, bipartisan vote to approve the America's Transportation Infrastructure Act.

The bill becomes the first piece of a complex puzzle, and it means that while the FAST Act, the current surface transportation law, doesn't expire until September 2020, critical work on Capitol Hill on transportation and infrastructure is now fully underway.

From the beginning of the 116th Congress, infrastructure has been much touted as an area of potential action. Although work continues on a comprehensive infrastructure package, the prospects for compromise and funding are dim. Most on Capitol Hill point to the combination of transportation reauthorization and annual appropriations as the real vehicles for action on infrastructure. The newly increased budget cap for domestic spending and a reauthorization deadline make action possible.

Still, familiar funding obstacles remain, and persistent advocacy will be required to ensure that new legislation advances critical planning policies.

The bill passed by the Senate EPW Committee covers only some aspects of the full reauthorization legislation. Other Senate committees will have to pass sections under their jurisdiction with the resulting elements knitting together for floor action. For example, the Senate Banking Committee will work on the transit provisions and the Senate Finance Committee will deal with tax issues. Meanwhile, the House will work on its bill through several committees, most notably the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Ways and Means Committee.

An Emphasis on Planning

While much work remains to be done, the late July EPW action is a critical step. The bill covers transportation planning requirements, formula funding for a range of state and regional programs, and for the first time creates a new climate title. Overall, the bill would provide a boost in funding to $287 billion over five years, a new high in total spending. The bill maintains the current percentage of funding (55 percent) allocated to metropolitan areas through the Surface Transportation Block Grant program (STBG).

Key provisions of the bill that APA supports include:

  • A new Climate Change section that includes a competitive grant program for electric charging infrastructure, $700 million for emission reduction grants, and nearly $1 billion for infrastructure resiliency grants
  • A new planning provision that includes "consideration" for Metropolitan Planning Organization governance that promotes "equitable and proportional representation" of the metro area population and elimination of the fiscal constraint requirement in Long Range Transportation Plans for years beyond the 4-year State Transportation Improvement Plan
  • Expansion of funding and increased local flexibility for the Transportation Alternatives Program that is used for a range of bike and pedestrian projects
  • A new research center to examine local impacts and planning related to autonomous vehicles and new mobility options
  • A program to boost funds for Complete Streets and active transportation planning
  • A new $3.3 billion competitive grant program for bridge rehabilitation and replacement
  • A new focus on wildlife crossings
  • A pilot program to support data-driven approaches to planning, including support for implementing a publicly accessible project prioritization and evaluation process for plans and a separate pilot on data accessibility
  • Pilot grants for disaster relief and response plans
  • Pilot program for planning funds looking at "community connectivity" and the removal or replacement of existing infrastructure that poses a barrier to mobility, economic development, and access.
  • Expansion of TIFIA eligibility
  • Funding for MPO performance management data support and a study of vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity technologies
  • A feasibility test of moving toward a road usage fee model for funding

Although the bill was approved by the Senate EPW Committee, there remain important opportunities to help shape the bill's final planning provisions. There will be modifications made before the bill moves to the Senate floor. And, since the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has not yet debated its version, there's the chance to engage House members by highlighting provisions in the Senate version that you support and those where changes need to be made.

The next steps will likely be action on transit provisions and the beginning of work in the House. The final, but ultimately critical piece, will be the finance and tax provisions. That will test the political will to deal with a gas tax increase or some other mechanism for securing revenues that pay for the bill. That will be no small feat, especially as a new election gets closer.

Appropriations in Play

Happening alongside work on reauthorization is the annual appropriations process that will set funding for some vital transportation and housing programs. The fate of programs like BUILD (formerly TIGER), transit capital grants, CDBG, and HOME is determined through this legislation.

Prospects for building on recent increases in funding for these programs brightened with the agreement between the White House and congressional leadership in the House and Senate to set new, and higher, budget caps for domestic spending over the next two years.

The House has already passed a transportation and housing (T-HUD) spending bill that boosts critical investment in these programs. With the new agreement in place, the Senate will begin work on their version in September.

With so much at stake with reauthorization and appropriations for the new fiscal year, the next few months are a critical time for advocacy. It is time to let Congress know the priorities for the next transportation bill and support for vital funding.

Advocate for Robust Federal Transportation and Community Development Funding

APA's new Policy Guide on Surface Transportation set out an important framework for advocacy on these issues. The key asks on reauthorization and funding APA has for Congress focus on four key themes:

First, states and communities need increased, sustainable, and predictable funding

This means advancing increases in vital discretionary programs through THUD appropriations legislation. It means increasing the gas tax to support smart and forward-looking plans and projects while seriously moving toward a new user-fee revenue model. Congress should also advance new finance tools that support critical investment.

Second, federal transportation programs must do more to promote transit, biking, and walking

These options make places safer and healthier and provide more options for mobility. This means expanding and improving the TAP program, increasing and better targeting funding for BUILD and transit grants, significantly increasing transit funding, expanding bike-share, and supporting critical planning and design for a better network.

Third, our transportation policies have to make communities more resilient and address the challenge of climate change

This will require new approaches that require greater resiliency in infrastructure and more planning for resilience and hazards. It also means supporting expanding planning that incorporates climate measurement and mitigation. And, it requires investment in infrastructure that supports reduced emissions.

Lastly, transportation legislation must be forward-looking and help communities prepare for the future

Advancing an understanding of the implications and new practices related to incorporating technology into planning, decision-making, public engagement and the infrastructure itself is critical. Special attention needs to be paid to the emergence of autonomous vehicles and connected infrastructure through research and standards related to local impacts. Congress should invest in helping communities plan for a new future of transportation and not simply pile investment into past approaches.

Building the Ground Game Now

There are steps that planning advocates can take now to begin influencing their elected officials' positions on pieces of the surface transportation reauthorization currently in play. This August, tell your elected officials what planners want to see as part of the next surface transportation bill.

Carry that message on to Capitol Hill in September at APA's Policy and Advocacy Conference where planning advocates will meet in-person with their House and Senate members to advocate for robust FY 2020 funding for key transportation programs and legislation that must be incorporated into a larger reauthorization bill.

Advancing our transportation planning agenda in Congress will require steady communication with elected officials through the end of the year and beyond, but as experts in planning, no one is as well positioned as planners to explain how these policies will lead to a greater shared future for all.

Top image: Bus, cars, pedestrians, and bicycle. Photo by Flickr user Oregon Department of Transportation (CC BY 2.0).

About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy.

August 2, 2019

By Jason Jordan