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Capitol Watch: Freight in Focus: The Administration's Last Six Months

By Anna Denecke, Associate, Blakey & Agnew

During the final months of an Administration, the pace of work can slow, as key officials move on
and the President works to ensure his own party remains in power come January. Bucking that trend this year is the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), which has set an ambitious agenda for the next six months. USDOT
is actively working to implement a host of new programs and policy changes required by the five-year Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, many of which pertain to freight.

Just this week, USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the first round of FASTLANE applications selected for award. FASTLANE is a freight-specific, megaproject competitive grant program authorized with five years of funding through the FAST Act. 18 projects, or 1 in 12 applicants, were selected for a total of $759 million in the first FASTLANE round. $173 million went to intermodal or freight rail projects; the remaining dollars were provided to highway and grade-separation projects. Much like TIGER, FASTLANE is oversubscribed. USDOT reports receiving 212 applications for projects totaling roughly $10 billion, more than 10 times the amount available for distribution.

USDOT also anticipates announcing the eighth round of TIGER awards this summer. TIGER discretionary grants fund capital investments in surface transportation. They are awarded to projects that stand to significantly impact the nation, a metropolitan area, or a region. The program, which was first authorized in the 2009 stimulus and reauthorized in subsequent appropriations bills, has provided almost $4.6 billion total to projects in all fifty states. $500 million is available for award this year and applications were due in late April.

In addition to awarding grants, there are a number of policy initiatives USDOT is moving to implement before a new Administration is established next year. Included among them is the establishment of a National Multimodal Freight Network (NMFN). Once finalized, the NMFN will be comprised of key highways, ports, inland waterways, airports, railways and intermodal facilities. The map will be used to assist States in strategically directing resources towards improved system performance for the efficient movement of freight. The network will also help inform freight transportation planning and assist in the prioritization of Federal investment. To finalize the NFMN, USDOT published an Interim map on June 6 and opened a portal for public comment.

The Department invites suggestions for alternate
routes and additional facilities for inclusion in the
map, among other items. Comments are due September 6.

In addition to designating a NMFN, USDOT plans to publish a final National Freight Strategic Plan (Plan) by the end of the year. The Plan will identify future demands on the freight transportation system and recognize major gateways and corridors critical to moving goods. The Plan will also list the physical, financial, and institutional barriers to system-wide improvement. USDOT released a draft of the Plan in October 2015 and solicited stakeholder feedback to improve the document for final publication. Comments were due April 25.

Finally, USDOT is working to stand up the National Surface Transportation and innovative Finance Bureau (Bureau), established by the FAST Act. The Bureau is charged with helping USDOT work among the modal administrations to ensure expeditious and thorough consideration of freight projects applying
for financing and funding opportunities available
through the Federal government. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last month, Secretary Foxx stated that the search for an Executive Director is underway and USDOT aims to open Bureau doors this summer, with a fully operational unit by the end
of the year.

The Bureau, once up and running, will provide public-private partnership and NEPA expertise, as well as administer the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) and Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), and the FASTLANE grant program. USDOT sees it as an extension and expansion of the Build America Transportation Investment Center, established in July, 2014 by President Obama.

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