Senate’s DRIVE Act Signals Hope for a Long-Term Federal Transportation Funding Solution

MAP-21, the current federal highway legislation, is set to expire on July 31, and Congress is feeling the pressure.

The federal government has been unable (or unwilling) to find a long-term solution for funding the nation’s transportation infrastructure during the last few months. But then last week, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee introduced a bipartisan piece of legislation, the “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act,” (DRIVE Act), which, despite its name, seems to offer some promise.

Transportation advocates are cautiously optimistic about the new legislation. Streetsblog labeled it “Not as Big a Disaster as You Might Think,” citing encouraging, though tentative, moves on complete streets, road design, TOD and local control of transportation dollars. James Corless of Transportation for America complimented many of the same aspects of the bill. Some freight advocates have praised the bill’s inclusion of some multimodal freight planning and dedicated freight infrastructure funding. The American League of Cities had positive words for the increased certainty in policymaking that the DRIVE Act would bring to cities.

But the DRIVE Act is far from perfect. While some of the amendments sought by advocates — improvements to the Transportation Alternatives Program, the addition of NACTO guidelines, and a strengthening of the national complete streets language — were adopted in committee, more could be done through Senate floor amendments. One priority for Transportation for America is The Innovation in Surface Transportation Act, which provides local control and competitive grant programs that would reward efficiency and innovation in project delivery, as well as enhancing opportunities for local control of projects. Another welcome addition would be restoring higher funding levels to the Transportation Alternatives Program, which funds bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Funding also remains a hurdle. The federal gas tax, the primary mechanism for funding the federal highway program, has not been raised since 1993, and there seems to be little political appetite for raising it from the current 18.4 cents per gallon. The shortfall between federal spending and gas tax receipts stands around $16 billion per year, and the CBO has estimated that an additional $100 billion on top of the $50 billion in annual spending would be needed to fund a six-year bill. The DRIVE Act does not include a funding mechanism (that’s the responsibility of the Senate Finance Committee) and there doesn’t appear to be a consensus in the Senate about how to fund any bill that might be passed.

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