By Anna Denecke, Associate,
Blakey & Agnew, LLC
Congressional action this winter, resulting in a swift passage of the Fixing the America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, was met with sighs of relief from transportation interests around the country. For the first time in nearly a decade, Washington was able to pass a long-term surface transportation bill, thereby guaranteeing stabile funding to the entities responsible for maintaining and improving our surface transportation.
Freight interests, in particular, had reason to pull out the streamers and pour the champagne. The legislation included $10.8 billion for investments in freight infrastructure, distributed over the next five years through a competitive grant approach and a formula program. The FAST Act also created the first-ever national multimodal freight policy and required the U.S. Department of Transportation identify a national multimodal freight network, inclusive of all modes of transport.
Freight, however, wasn’t the only area of focused investment and innovation in the FAST Act. The bill also establishes the National Surface Transportation and Innovative Finance Bureau, a one-stop shop for state and local governments in need of technical assistance, financing, or federal funding. An executive director, appointed by the Secretary of Transportation, will oversee the bureau and is authorized to pull staff and resources from other offices within the department.
The bureau will enable USDOT to coordinate among the modes to ensure expeditious and thorough consideration of freight projects. Staff will provide public-private partnership and NEPA expertise, as well as administer the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) and Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovative Act (TIFIA) programs. Once established, the bureau will oversee the newly-created Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects competitive grant program.
In addition to the bureau, the FAST Act creates a new competitive grant program aimed at incentivizing the exploration of alternative user-based revenue mechanisms. The current revenue mechanism – a per-gallon gas and diesel tax – no longer sufficiently
supports the Highway Trust Fund, due to declining spending power and increasing vehicle fuel efficiency.
The FAST Act’s Surface Transportation System Funding Alternatives program provides states and multi-state groups the opportunity to compete for grants that can go towards projects that demonstrate a user fee structure and have the ability to maintain the long-term financial health of the Highway Trust Fund. The Surface Transportation System Funding Alternatives program is funded at $15 million in FY16 and $20 million for the remaining four years of the bill.
The five-year surface transportation authorization bill also attempts to improve the environmental impact statement and permitting processes that often bog down large infrastructure projects. The FAST Act creates a Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council comprised of an executive director appointed by the president and council members designated by heads of the federal agencies typically involved in infrastructure projects.
The steering council is charged with examining best practices for enhancing early stakeholder engagement, ensuring timely decisions, improving federal and non-federal governmental coordination, increasing transparency, reducing information collection requirements, and in other permitting and environmental process areas. Additionally, the council will develop recommended performance schedules, based on the average time it takes to complete an environmental review or authorization of a project.
Blakey & Agnew, LLC is a public affairs and communications consulting firm based in Washington, DC.