By Christian Flinn
After a decade of inadequate funding for the nation’s bridges, highways, freight network, and ports, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) introduced H.R. 3763, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 (STRR Act) on October 20, 2015. The bill aims to end the recent series of stop-gap measures by proposing a six-year, $325 billion plan to provide funding for states to upgrade infrastructure, construct new projects, prioritize commercially important routes, and streamline the environmental review process. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee advanced the bill on October 22, 2015 after sorting through over 150 proposed amendments.
The specific actions proposed by the STRR Act are numerous, but they mainly focus on simplifying permit attainment for projects and, in particular, the environmental review process. It does this by allowing states to use their own environmental laws and regulations instead of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), where they are similar, in order to avoid duplicative procedures. Additionally, the bill includes measures for ensuring transparency and allowing greater state input and supervision of specific projects.
In order to solidify this enhanced state authority, the bill would eliminate or consolidate at least six separate offices within the Department of Transportation and, in their place, establish the National Surface Transportation and Innovative Finance Bureau (the Bureau). The Bureau would help state, local, and private sector partners with planning, funding, and executing transportation projects. Among other things, the Bureau would administer the application process for certain financing programs with the Department of Transportation and, consequently, help accelerate the permitting process for environmental reviews and promote best practices for financing methods. In another provision aimed at assisting state and local government funded projects, the bill would convert the Surface Transportation Program (STP) to a competitive block grant system to enhance funding flexibility.
Transparency is an underlying theme throughout each of the bill’s provisions and, specifically, the Federal-aid Highway Program (FHWA) would be required to submit project-level reports to Congress and the public so as to ensure proper utilization of funds. Other provisions of the bill address highway and driver safety regulations as well as installing vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies and public transportation changes.
Regarding freight projects, the bill would create the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects (NSFHP) program. Authorized for $4.5 billion in funding for fiscal years 2016 through 2021, the program would be designated for ad-hoc spending on large-scale freight projects of national or regional importance. The program would also include a competitive grant application process, allow for congressional oversight, and, for the first time ever, provide dedicated funding for freight networks.
Furthermore, the STRR Act seeks to reprioritize the country’s freight network. In addition to the NSFHP program, the bill would establish the National Multimodal Freight Network (NMFN). This Network would identify the most strategic freight assets throughout the country so as to better target investment opportunities and practices. Continuing the trend of increasing state input into the process, the NMFN would also call for the establishment of State Freight Advisory Committees to aid in the discussion and identification of state-level freight issues and beneficial projects. Finally, the NMFN would serve as a liaison between private corporations and project managers to identify private investment opportunities.
The U.S. freight system has grown both in size and value over the past few decades. Between 1975 and 1997, domestic intercity tons of freight grew by about 60 percent, with air and trucking growing the fastest. In 1998 alone, the transportation network moved 15 billion tons of goods valued at more than $9 trillion and that number is expected to triple to $30 trillion by the year 2020. Much of this can be attributed to the fast growth of international trade, which largely occurs via sea ports and cargo ships, and the rise of intermodal transportation (the transfer of goods via two or more forms of freight transport). One of the most common examples of this is having goods that arrive at deep-water ports transferred to trucks or cargo planes for delivery. This latter trend is particularly important to understanding the current needs of the freight network.
Between 1980 and 2002, truck travel grew by more than 90 percent while lane-miles of public roads increased by only 5 percent. Since then, truck travel has only continued increasing while public road mileage has lagged behind. To put this into perspective, in 2002 truck travel accounted for about 70 percent of the total value of freight that traveled throughout the country as well as 35 percent of the total ton-miles traveled by goods in the freight system. While intermodal freight travel has grown, most forms still include truck travel and, as a result, it is estimated that by 2020 the percentage of urban Interstates carrying 10,000 or more trucks will have increased from 27 percent in 1998 to 69 percent today.
With this in mind, linking freight networks is more crucial than ever to ensure timely delivery of goods across the nation as well as efficient and safe networks that improve congestion and reduce barriers to commerce. This is best evidenced in the Los Angeles Alameda Corridor project, which centered on the 20-miles separating downtown Los Angeles from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that were often bottlenecked at rail crossings. Upon completion, the project eliminated 200 highway-rail grade crossings, widened Alameda Street, and improved traffic signal controls to reduce traffic delays, enhance safety, improve rail operations, and minimize truck drayage in and around the Ports. These improvements are expected to eliminate an estimated 15,000 hours of delay per day for vehicles at rail crossings. In addressing freight, the bill seeks to replicate improvements like this throughout the overall system and prioritize port corridors linking important centers of commerce with their destinations.
Rep. Shuster, the bill’s sponsor, said, “This is a bill that improves our roads, bridges, and transportation system, as well as our economy, our competitiveness, and our everyday lives.”
Rep. John Delaney (D-MD), however, was hoping for a much larger investment than what is allotted by the bill, stating, "What this bill does, which is incredibly disappointing to me, and, quite frankly, incredibly stupid, [is fund] our infrastructure at the same levels we're funding now." By his estimate, more than $3 trillion is needed to bring the nation’s transportation system up to par and, subsequently, he has vowed to vote no on the bill. Despite his opposition, however, supporters are optimistic and believe the deal to be “the best they’re going to get” given the current political climate.
The STRR Act is incredibly important to both Republicans and Democrats, making a comprehensive bill difficult to construct, as can be seen by the 270 amendments that have been filed since it was introduced. Nevertheless, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members on both sides of the aisle worked well together in drafting and approving the measure in late October. On November 3rd, the House Committee on Rules advanced a package of 81 amendments on topics ranging from vehicle safety, to parochial truck weight issues, and modifications to the Export-Import Bank. The House held votes on 45 of those amendments that same day and will continue to work through them over the rest of this week. Warwick Group Consultants will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as the bill moves through the legislative process.
For more information, contact Christian Flinn at email@example.com.