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Capitol Watch: Freight is the Star of the House STRRA

By Anna Denecke, Associate,
Blakey & Agnew, LLC

Despite a tumultuous series of weeks in Congress, in which Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) retired and his heir-apparent Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) bowed out of the race to succeed him, the House still approved their first long-term surface transportation proposal in a decade.

On November 5, by a vote of 363-64, the House’s six-year Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 (STRRA) was approved and sent to conference with the Senate’s Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act. The DRIVE Act passed the Senate by a vote of 65-34 on July 30.

The House bill provides $325 billion in contract authority, compared to the Senate’s slightly more robust $350 billion proposal. Both bills address the chronic insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund by transferring dollars from the General Fund of the Treasury to the beleaguered transportation account.

The hallmark of the House-passed STRRA is its creation of the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program. This competitive grant program provides $4.42 billion in contract authority, over six years, to freight projects around the country.

STRRA’s Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program has broad applicant eligibility and funnels a large percentage of its money to highway, bridge, and grade separation projects. It includes a $500 million aggregate flex cap for projects on the bill’s newly created multimodal freight network.

The program is, in some respects, comparable to the Assistance for Major Projects Program (AMPP), the DRIVE Act’s merit-based grant program funded through contract authority at $2.1 billion over six years. AMPP provides up to 20 percent of funds annually for transit and multimodal freight projects. The Senate program augments two other sources of freight funding created by DRIVE. The first is a freight formula program, supported by contract authority at $11.65 billion over six years. The second is the

Assistance for Freight Projects program, authorized for appropriations at $200 million annually.

In addition to providing much-needed funding for freight infrastructure projects, STRRA establishes a National Multimodal Freight Policy and asks the Secretary of Transportation to designate a National Multimodal Freight Network. Similar policy provisions are included in the DRIVE Act. STRRA also reforms MAP-21’s 28,000 centerline-mile Primary Freight Network, renaming it the Primary Highway Freight Network and increasing the mileage cap to 41,000 miles.

An amendment offered by Rep. Neugebauer (R-TX), and subsequently adopted by the full House during floor debate of STRRA, substantially increases the amount of money available to fund a final surface transportation bill. Neugebauer’s amendment provides a net addition of $40 billion in transfers from the General Fund of the Treasury to the Highway Trust Fund, offset by taking dollars from a surplus account at the Federal Reserve.

This infusion of General Fund cash provides previously unanticipated flexibility to the STRRA/DRIVE Conference Committee. Conferees could choose to pay for all six years of STRRA or five years of the more robust DRIVE Act. They could also choose to eliminate other budgetary offsets in favor of the Neugebauer transfer, which would, in effect, only pay for a portion of the bill up-front and leave the question of how to maintain the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund up to a future Congress.

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