transportation infrastructure

DRIVE Act Enters Passing Lane

This is a follow up from our initial post, DRIVE Act: The Little Engine That Might 

Congressional action on transportation funding remains fluid as the Senate gears up to act in the shadow of a looming deadline July 31.

Congressional action on transportation funding remains fluid as the Senate gears up to act in the shadow of a looming deadline July 31.

The Senate last night secured enough votes to advance the 6-year transportation bill. The procedural vote, which passed 62-36, allows the Senate to debate the bill and consider amendments.
While funding for the overall STP program was increased and the allocation to local governments was increased to 55 percent from 50 percent, the bill includes a little sleight-of-hand feature that actually reduces STP funds to municipal governments. The bill requires that 15 percent of the STP suballocation for local governments go toward non-system bridges. In MAP-21, this 15 percent bridge funding came from the state’s allocation. In the DRIVE Act, it would come from the local government suballocation. Thus, funds to local governments overall will be reduced from $4.9 billion to $4.6 billion.
Local government advocates, including NACO, NLC, Conference of Mayors and T4A have caught on to this reduction and will be working together to increase the STP suballocation to local governments. An amendment is being drafted to reverse the cuts and increase STP for local governments.
If this STP amendment fails or is not allowed to be offered, it could lead local governments to oppose the bill. The Senate bill already faces some stiff challenges for other reasons and from different factions, including:

  • General opposition from Tea Party Republicans to transportation investment;
  • Presidential candidates in the Senate promising to hold up the bill to address their pet issues from abortion to the Iran nuclear deal; 
  • Concern over some of the pay-\fors, including revenue from reducing interest rates paid by the Federal Reserve to large banks, selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that is used to prevent energy crises and directing fees from the Transportation Security Administration and customs processing. Some Senators just oppose the pay fors, while others wanted to use these pay fors for their pet bills (ie pending Energy Bill and sequestration relief).
  • Concern over some of the environmental streamlining.

DRIVE Act highlights include:

  •  A new Freight Mobility Program will distribute $1.5 billion in FY16 and grow from there. Freight corridors throughout the country will see needed influx in resources. In FY 16, Washington and Oregon would receive $34.2 million and $25.3 million to build important infrastructure projects.
  • A new Major Projects Program will distribute $300 million in FY16 and grow to $450 million in FY21. The new initiative will fund large projects of regional and national significance throughout the country.
  • The bill increases funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program from $800 million to $850 million and gives local governments 100% control over the use of funds. TAP provides funding for trails, bike paths, safe routes to school and other local priorities. 
  • The Surface Transportation Program allocation to local governments is increased from 50% to 55%. However, the overall pot has shrunk, so local governments will actually see a reduction. There are efforts underway to offer amendments to increase local governments share of STP funds.
  • The bill increases the funding that must be spent on projects to maintain and repair bridges off of the National Highway System, as these bridges often struggle to find a reliable funding stream. These city and county owned bridges were neglected under MAP-21. The bill requires that states allocate at least 110% of the funds they allocated to bridges in FY 2014.
  • The bill restores funding for the FTA Bus and Bus Facility grant program and increases transit formula dollars for transit agencies in urban and rural areas.

What Congressional Bipartisanship Wrought

Fallout from the government shutdown last October is having wide ranging impact on the mood and actions of federal legislators in Washington, DC. The term compromise, a dirty word since 2010, has reemerged in the lexicon of American politics as both parties try to avoid lurching from crisis to crisis.

Washington DC, after all, is a town of self-interest and even the most novice political observer could see a continuance of governance by shutdown and showdown could jeopardize the GOP's control of the House and prevent a takeover of the Senate, which now is a distinct possibility in November elections.  

Thus, the GOP had every incentive to work with Democrats to craft a bipartisan compromise on the largest spending bill approved in years. Democrats also wanted government working again, as President Obama and the Democratic Senate seek to put forward a record of accomplishment before the 2014 election.

The second term off-year election is historically bad for the party controlling the White House. Democrats fear they could lose their slim five-seat majority in the Senate and even lose seats in the House. The prospect of a united Republican Congress in 2015 has plenty of Democrats losing sleep.