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Capitol Watch: Freight takes the spotlight in EPW's DRIVE Act

By Anna Denecke, Associate,
Blakey & Agnew, LLC

On June 24, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee voted 20-0 to approve S. 1647, the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act. If enacted, the six-year, $278 billion proposal would provide long-term funding certainty for state and local transportation projects. The DRIVE Act generally maintains the funding levels of MAP-21, the most recent surface transportation bill. The exception is two new freight programs, which earned $15.8 of the $16 billion in new funding provided by the bill.

The first, the National Freight Program, distributes formula funding based on current apportionment criteria. The National Freight Program is authorized at $2 billion in FY2016 and increases by an additional $100 million each year. By FY2021, the NFP is authorized at $2.5 billion.

The second freight-focused portion in the DRIVE Act is the Assistance for Major Projects Program. AMPP is a competitive grant program funded in FY2016 at $300 million per year, eventually increasing to $450 million in FY2021. The program is designed to support projects that are typically very large and often multimodal, sometimes stretching across multiple jurisdictional boundaries, including state lines.

AMPP is similar to Projects of National and Regional Significance (PNRS), a SAFETEA-LU era program that was included in MAP-21 but left unfunded by appropriators. AMPP is funded through Highway Trust Fund contract authority, meaning grant dollars will not be subject to the annual appropriations process and the program cannot be left unfunded.

In addition to the two new freight programs, the DRIVE Act also improves existing freight policy. The Primary Freight Network, created by MAP-21, requires the Secretary of Transportation to identify up to 27,000 miles of roadways necessary for the efficient transportation of goods. The limited mileage and other restrictions left the draft Primary Freight Network a patchwork map. Many transportation interests deemed the draft network

unrepresentative of how freight truly moves.

The DRIVE Act takes steps to ensure that the Primary Freight Network is a useful tool and serves its original purpose. Renaming it the Primary Highway Freight System, per the highway-only jurisdiction of the EPW Committee, the DRIVE Act increases the mileage cap to 30,000 centerline miles and adds all National Highway System freight intermodal connectors. Intermodal connectors tie modes together; they are key to ensuring goods move seamlessly within regions, across the country, and to our borders. The DRIVE Act also provides states, in consultation with their State Freight Advisory Committees, the opportunity to gradually increase the number of miles within their state that appear on the Primary Highway Freight System.

While MAP-21 only recommended states develop State Freight Advisory Committees and State Freight Plans, the DRIVE Act requires them. This will allow for a cross-section of public and private sector freight stakeholders to assist states in forecasting for short- and long-term freight planning and investment.

The EPW Committee put a stake in the ground on June 24 by unanimously voting to report the DRIVE Act out of committee. However, in order for the Senate to pass a long-term surface transportation bill, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee must draft the multimodal language and the Senate Banking Committee must write the transit section. Finally, the Senate Finance Committee must find the funds to support the comprehensive plan. So far, the EPW is the only committee to act on a long-term bill. The latest extension of MAP-21 expires on July 31.

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