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Capitol Watch: USDOT Moving Fast on FASTLANE

By Anna Denecke, Associate, Blakey & Agnew

You'd be forgiven for thinking it was just yesterday the U.S. Department of Transportation (UDSOT) announced the 18 projects selected to receive Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-Term Achievement of National Efficiencies (FASTLANE) grants.

The inaugural FASTLANE application round closed on April 14, 2016 and USDOT notified Congress of proposed awards on July 6. Per the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, Congress has sixty days to review USDOT's FASTLANE selections and can enact a joint resolution disapproving funds for a specific project, should they disagree with a selection. Congress made no such move, and FY2016 grants were awarded in early September.

On October 28, less than two months after the first round of awards was finalized, USDOT issued the second FASTLANE Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO). Applications are due December 15, 2016, and USDOT intends to notify Congress of decisions well in advance of the summer 2017 construction season, according to NOFO.

FASTLANE is a freight-focused competitive grant program, with broad applicant eligibility, funded at $4.5 billion over five years from the Highway Trust Fund. It was authorized by the FAST Act, a $305 billion, five-year surface transportation bill signed into law last December. The FAST Act is the first comprehensive federal surface transportation bill to contain dedicated, freight-focused funding. This money is distributed two ways: through FASTLANE competitive grants and the National Highway Freight Program formula. Law stipulates that FASTLANE funds are reserved for freight and highway projects of national or regional significance.

The inaugural round of FASTLANE grants was not without controversy, and USDOT's decision to accelerate the timeline associated with the second FASTLANE round is frustrating for some. Not every unsuccessful applicant received a debrief from USDOT before the second NOFO was issued. Debriefs on unsuccessful bids can be extremely valuable to entities trying to understand how their

application was received in an otherwise opaque selection process. Other potential FASTLANE applicants are conducting economic analysis on the impacts of their proposed projects in order to strengthen their applications, but these studies will not be completed in time for the second round deadline in mid-December.

The Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), a national organization focused on increasing funding and federal attention for multimodal freight infrastructure, criticized the lack of transparency in the inaugural round of FASTLANE. Absent more information on both successful and unsuccessful applications, it's difficult to understand how USDOT made award decisions, CAGTC argues. Several critical freight hubs and corridors, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis, and the Florida ports were left without funding from a program designed to advantage projects with major national and regional economic benefits.

The FAST Act requires the U.S. Comptroller General to conduct an assessment of the adequacy and fairness of the FASTLANE selection process, as well as the justification and criteria used for the selection of each project, within a year of USDOT's initial grant awards. This report, which will be transmitted to Congress by September, 2017, may help Congress and the public identify areas in which the FASTLANE program can be strengthened and refined for future years.

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