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Capitol Watch: FAST and the Year in Review

Anna Denecke, Associate,
Blakey & Agnew, LLC

"In Washington, things go from impossible to inevitable overnight," mused Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to a POLITICO reporter on December 18. Just twelve short months ago, the prospects of Congress moving a long-term surface transportation bill seemed slim at best. Come December, passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was imminent. Was the writing on the wall or did the FAST Act catch us all by surprise?

Perhaps the first sign that Washington intended to get serious about passing a long-term surface transportation bill was the flurry of proposals that cropped up earlier this year suggesting ways to pay for a long-term bill. Several lawmakers and the Obama Administration introduced legislation directing revenue from a revamped corporate tax code into the Highway Trust Fund. While the proposals varied in structure and tax rate, repatriation as a concept had support from the two parties and on both sides of the Capitol. Meanwhile, other legislation was introduced to raise the gas tax and institute a barrel tax during the early part of 2015.

As suggestions on how to pay for a long-term bill percolated through the halls of the Capitol, the policy committees began to move legislation as well. The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, with jurisdiction over the highway portion of the surface bill, marked up their long-term bill on June 24. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, with responsibility for the multimodal and safety provision of a surface bill, marked up their legislation shortly after. The EPW and Commerce titles were combined with a transit title and shepherded to the Senate floor.

The Senate then opted to avoid the political heavy-lifting associated with restructuring the corporate tax code, and instead supplemented existing gas tax revenues with a transfer from the General Fund of the Treasury, offset in the budget through non-surface-transportation-related spending cuts. On July 30, the Senate voted 65-34 to pass their Developing a Reliable and Innovative Transportation (DRIVE) Act, then gaveled out for August recess.

Attention turned to the House, where the Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee indicated hesitation to move forward without a Ways & Means title that could pay for the bill. Then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, referring to the Senate’s cobbled together funding package, called the DRIVE Act a "piece of --it," and for a moment, it seemed like the legislation would stall indefinitely.

Unexpectedly, in late fall, Boehner announced his

retirement and Ways & Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) ascended to the speaker’s gavel. With a leadership vacuum atop the committee responsible for funding a long-term surface transportation bill, T&I Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) moved to introduce this six-year Surface Transportation Reform and Reauthorization (STRR) Act, coupling it instead with the Senate budgetary offsets. STRR was marked up and approved by T&I unanimously, and then passed the House 363-64 on November 5.

The compromise between the Senate DRIVE Act and the House STRR Act was released on December 1. The FAST Act Conference Report contained $281 billion in contract authority and paid for five years of spending with gas tax revenue and a $70 billion transfer from the General Fund of the Treasury to the Highway Trust Fund. Highlights of the bill include two new freight investment programs, a multimodal national freight policy, and a new National Surface Transportation and Innovative Finance Bureau.

While the surface bill was a crowning achievement of 2015, Congress can lay claim to other transportation achievements. The Surface Transportation Board was subject to an overhaul in December, when lawmakers passed a bill making the government agency independent from the U.S. Department of Transportation and instituting key changes to the arbitration process, among other reforms.

The FY16 Omnibus, which also passed in December, includes $500 million for the popular TIGER investment grant program. The bill also found a middle ground between trucking and safety interests. In the final negotiation hours, lawmakers struck language allowing for twin trailers, but acquiesced to industry concerns over the ongoing Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration 34-hour restart study by adding new standards the study must meet in order to reinstate the July 2013 rule.

2016 is now coming into view, and it’s sure to be a packed one, with possible action on a Federal Aviation Administration bill and another Water Sources Reauthorization Act. And for surface transportation, with the FAST Act now the law of the land, the regulation process begins anew.

Blakey & Agnew, LLC is a public affairs and communications consulting firm based in Washington, DC.