Transportation Bill Defies the Odds and Will Likely Pass in a Divided Congress

Congress is set to vote today on a much-debated transportation bill that avoids calamity, but doesn't keep pace with needed infrastructure investment.The MAP-21 transportation bill is scheduled for a vote in the House today and the Senate shortly thereafter.  The House should pass the measure easily and the Senate will likely do the same. The Obama Administration supports the bill and will likely sign it tonight.

As with any bill, not all sides are happy.  Transportation For America, a group focused on investing in transportation infrastructure, believes the bill is a missed opportunity: 

"We are encouraged that Congress will avoid a shutdown of the program. Unfortunately, this last-minute, closed-door deal does little more than that. The bill ultimately looks and feels like what it is: A stopgap that is the last gasp of a spent 20th century program. It doesn’t begin to address the needs of a changing America in the 21st century... What has been billed as a “compromise” on transportation instead represents a substantial capitulation in the face of provisions threatened by the House that had no relevance to the transportation debate.  In many respects, the bill falls far short of progress."

With that said, in this fiscally constrained environment, the bill does provide some short term surety regarding funding levels and tools to expedite projects more quickly.  The consolidation of federal programs and elimination of federal red tape will surely stretch these limited resources further.

MAP-21 Summary

MAP-21 will authorize federal transportation programs through September 2014 at current spending levels, but highway program contract authority is actually reduced in all 50 states.   Congressional leaders have combined the transportation bill with an agreement on student loan interest, which also expires on June 30.  

Transportation funding levels come in below FY11 levels.  This means a cut in contract authority for WA and OR of about $45 million and $35 million per year, respectively, over the next three years.  The Transportation Enhancements (TE) program took a 34 percent hit, depending on who you talk to.  And state DOTs will have much greater authority on how to spend federal dollars. 

The House tried to eliminate the TE program, but it survived with some changes.  The agreement would keep the current 10 percent set-aside, directing 50 percent of it to local governments and allow states to spend the other 50 percent on non-TE programs.  The new funding formula will basically take the TE allocation (combined with SRS and Rec Trails) from about $1.2 billion to $809 million.

TE is now included in a broader “Transportation Alternatives” account, which also has absorbed the Safe Routes to School and Recreational Trails programs.  These accounts used to have their own dedicated funding. And use of these funds has been broadened to include “planning, designing, or constructing boulevards and other roadways largely in the right-of-way of former Interstate System routes or other divided highways.” 

The agreement makes changes to project delivery, increasing the threshold for “categorical exemptions” and defining certain activities as categorical exclusions under NEPA.  The $5 million NEPA exemption level will save local entities across the country significant time, energy, money and frustration.  Transit programs also would have a streamlined approval process to accelerate project delivery.

The conference agreement will maintain the threshold for Metropolitan Planning Organizations at the current level of 50,000 in population, keeping current law rather than an increase in threshold to the 200,000 population contained in the Senate bill.   Rural regions will get new authority in the planning process.

The bill contains the off-system bridge set-aside for local bridges not on the federal-aid system.   

The bill authorizes $500 million for Projects of National and Regional Significance.  Appropriators will have to come back and fund the program, but authorization is an important step.  The PNRS account is critical for projects like the Columbia River Crossing project.  The bill also bumps up the TIFIA program to $1 billion in FY14.  This will help provide financing for large toll projects

In terms of transit, the new bill does not change the basic FTA funding structure set in the SAFETEA-LU law — all of the Highway Trust Fund money goes to one big Formula Grants account, while the other FTA accounts are to be appropriated from the general fund if the Appropriations committees can find the money.  The biggest single program represents capital formula grants to urbanized areas. This program does not change that much in the conference report

The final agreement increases the RESTORE Act, which would use penalties assessed against parties responsible for the April 2010 oil spill for a new trust fund for the five affected Gulf states to  spend on coastal habitat restoration and protection projects.  Conferees dropped the controversial House-passed provisions to approve the Keystone pipeline and prevent EPA from regulating coal ash.