It all sits well

First multiyear funding bill in a decade is finally here

January 05, 2016

Sitting next to him would have fired up this hologram of Julie McCann—the 1981 version, of course.

Oh, sure, I talked myself up in my head before the flight on Southwest Airlines heading back to Chicago in late November. If I had a chance to share an armrest with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), I was going to somehow work in my free bag of peanuts into a glorious presentation on how this country desperately needed a long-term federal highway bill. However, let’s be real, if the opportunity did arise, Speaker Ryan might as well have been covered in his favorite fingernail polish and smelling like lavender. I would have nailed the opportunity like I did back in junior high with my crush, Julie—head down and mouth shut. 

No, I did not google-eye over Ryan, who like me was flying back home from Washington, D.C. Instead I sat a few rows back and convinced myself, for the millionth time, of the need to invest in road and bridge infrastructure. It was as if neither of us needed to say a word. We just knew. If only that magic happened in the halls of Lincoln Junior High School back in the day.

A few weeks later, Ryan led the charge to pass the House version of a multiyear highway bill, and, after both chambers met, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was created, approved and sent to President Obama on Dec. 4. The road and bridge industry now has about $207 billion to work with over the next five years, averaging out to about $41 billion annually. 

So let’s go over some pre-flight highlights before this act really gets off the ground:

  • Two new programs have been created under FAST: the National Freight Program and the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects Program. Under the National Freight Program states must create a board and, working with the Secretary of Transportation, designate an official freight network that is eligible for federal funding—$6.2 billion to be exact. The Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects Program offers up another $900 million in grants per year;
  • Project streamlining continues to inch forward under FAST, which will eliminate time-killing duplications while encouraging collaboration and allowing states to apply their own environmental ruling on federal projects; and 
  • TIFIA and other innovative financing will take a bit of a cut, going from $1 billion in FY 2014 and FY 2015 to just $275 million in FY 2016. Funding will reach its highest point in FY 2019 at $300 million.

The FAST Act, however, does not provide enough zip when it comes to work-zone safety and intelligent transportation solutions (ITS). ITS continues to be treated like a Rolex commodity stacked way up high on the priority shelf.

Perhaps the one item that has a row all to itself here, the one which stands (sits?) alone in my mind, is the mileage-based user fee obligation—as small as it may be. The FAST Act will provide states up to $95 million to study the benefits. Since Congress will have to find more than $100 billion in funds for the next long-term deal, an alternative charging system will serve as the true parachute. Right now is the time to load up on the pilots. R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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