A Little Bit of Something for Everyone in New Surface Transportation Bill
The “FAST Act” (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) that will likely pass Congress this week and be signed soon thereafter by President Obama contains a veritable potpourri of funding, permitting, safety, and innovation provisions for all surface transportation modes.
Like every major piece of compromise legislation, there are plenty of provisions for stakeholders on the entire political spectrum either to champion or to ridicule. Rolling in at 1,300 pages, the import of some of the Act’s miscellaneous provisions will only become clear over time. Here are some preliminary reflections, to be supplemented in greater detail over the next week once the bill is signed into law.
Congress has mastered kicking the can down the road. Yes, this is a five-year bill, the longest funding bill passed since 2005. However, the funding sources are decidedly short-term and do not address the persistent challenge of a gasoline tax structure that everyone agrees is unsustainable. Leaders hope that by giving this five-year window, a new Congress and a new President will have leeway and time to tackle this unresolved issue.
The price of long-range funding certainty may be viewed as steep. Environmental organizations will not be pleased with the many new or augmented streamlining provisions in the Act. They preferred to wait and see how the MAP-21 reforms worked before diving into even more changes. California’s Barbara Boxer, the Democratic champion of the FAST Act in the Senate, sounded resigned to more streamlining as the cost of doing business with the House and her conservative Senate colleagues. In the end, giving state DOTs and transit agencies greater funding certainty to make long-term plans prevailed over any environmental objections.
Accelerating project delivery has broad, bi-partisan support. Despite some reservations expressed by environmental NGO stakeholders, streamlining is here to stay. The Act has no fewer than 3 titles or sub-titles expanding project delivery reforms and many other individual items sprinkled throughout. The government’s greatest challenge will be to organize and administer these various authorities (including, notably, the creation of the Federal Permitting Improvement Council) so that institutional bureaucracy doesn’t stand in the way of ongoing efforts to cut red tape.
Multi-modalism may now be business as usual. By combining rail titles into the FAST Act, Congress may be signaling a willingness to depart from its recent history of fragmenting surface transportation programs. This can only be a good thing. Stakeholders can hope this trend continues, as it will surely promote greater consistency amongst the modes in key areas like the administration of loan programs, permitting requirements, and safety oversight. For too long, DOT’s surface modal Administrations have not benefitted fully from each other’s experience or obvious economies of scale. A true surface transportation bill might further help to break down silos.
Public-private partnerships – “If it ain’t broke, we’ll fix it anyway.” The DOT’s innovative finance program, TIFIA, has generally been viewed as a success, funding a variety of successful highway and transit projects across the country. Still, Congress clearly felt that even more could be done and that it could be done more efficiently. Thus, it created and funded the National Surface Transportation and Innovate Finance Bureau. Standing up this new Bureau inside of DOT will take time, but the mandate for the agency is plain: do more deals more quickly. Having seen the process up close, I anticipate that the obvious tension between protecting taxpayer money by ensuring that only good loans are made and closing more deals will persist. Neither a bloated bureaucracy nor technical competency were ever really the problems. The new Bureau should aim to build on previous success.
The race for automated/autonomous technology has intensified. Congress stated a clear desire to see the government promote innovation in transportation technology primarily for safety enhancements and congestion management. While most of the action in this sector to date has been driven by the private sector, we can expect the USDOT to be a bigger player in this rapidly developing field.
The FAST Act will surely be celebrated as a beacon of legislative cooperation in the thick shroud of gridlock that has enveloped Washington, D.C. for too long. As the Act’s varied provisions get ironed out over time, we will determine whether that beacon continues to light the path towards greater coordination and cooperation or fades into the distance.
Check back soon for more details and analysis.