Transportation Bill Finally Moving

Congressional conferees reached agreement on a 5-year, $305 billion transportation bill that will hike funding for public transportation.

Congressional conferees reached agreement on a 5-year, $305 billion transportation bill that will hike funding for public transportation.

House and Senate conferees have agreed on a transportation bill that funnels more money to local government, boosts funding to improve highway freight corridors, increases spending on buses and enhances safety for crude oil rail shipping.

The 1,300-page, five-year, $305 billion transportation authorization compromise is expected to land on President Obama's desk as early as Friday, the day the current authorization bill expires. If the process slows in the House or Senate, another short-term extension may be likely and will push the bill signing to next week.

In addition to transportation provisions, the so-called FAST Act revives the Export-Import Bank, which was effectively mothballed Oct. 1, and removes a restriction on financing large water projects.

While observers are still looking at the fine print, here are several highlights in the conference agreement: 

•  More money in the Surface Transportation Program is allocated for local government. The allocation will grow from 50 percent to 55 percent, which could mean an average increase of $300 million annually for local transportation projects.

•  Funding also increased for the Transportation Alternative Program. States and local government use this money for economic development, trail and other access projects.

•  Bus funding increases by 89 percent over the life of the bill. This provides both stable formula funding and a competitive grant program to address bus and bus facility needs.

•  A brand new National Highway Freight Program will focus on funding critical urban and rural freight corridors across the country. The new program is funded at $1.15 billion in 2016 and rises to $1.5 billion in 2020.  

•  The Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects, a new competitive grant program, will start at $800 million in FY16. After that, it increases by $50 million each year for a total of $1 billion. The program will reduce the impact of congestion, generating national and regional economic benefits and facilitating the efficient movement of freight.

•  Crude oil shipments will be required to move in railcars with a thermal blanket and other safety features. Local governments have demanded these additional measures along rail routes.

•  Conferees jump started the Water Infrastructure Finance & Innovation Act  (WIFIA) program. They made this possible by removing the restriction that disallows use of municipal bonds as the local match. The EPA designed the program to reduce the financing costs of large scale water projects. It's estimated that the WIFIA program could save an estimated 20 percent on the cost of construction.