The FAST Act: “Tomorrow’s Dollars to Pay for Yesterday’s Ideas”

Photo: Jeff Turner | Flickr

On Friday, President Obama signed into law the five-year, fully-funded $305 billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. While a far cry from the $478 billion GROW AMERICA Act introduced by the president earlier this year, the bill is the first long-term surface transportation authorization in over a decade.

The House and Senate passed respective six-year bills, but the final version was reduced to a five-year lifespan and has slightly higher funding levels (the House bill was funded at $268.1 billion, Senate bill at $280.4 billion, and final conference bill at $281.1 billion). The final bill also salvaged the High Density States Program.

The FAST Act retains the 80-20 percent funding split for highways and mass transit. Generally, funding levels are preserved overall, with slight increases for inflation:

  • $5 billion for highway safety
  • $8.05 billion for Amtrak—the first time Amtrak has been included in the surface transportation act, although this amount is subject to discretionary appropriation—in addition to allowing Amtrak to use its net income from the Northeast Corridor to help fund the new Hudson Rail Tunnel
  • $11.5 billion for New Starts transit program
  • $1.6 billion for the High Density States Program, plus a small increase of $18.5 million
  • $800 million in 2016 for a new discretionary freight grant program, which will rise to $1 billion in 2020; and $1.15 billion for a formula-based program for freight, which will increase to $1.5 billion in 2020
  • $1.5 billion for the new nationwide Competitive Bus Grant Program

There were two notable changes to funding programs:

  • The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) was cut by 70 percent, from $1 billion to $275 million.
  • Bike-pedestrian program funding was increased slightly from $817 million in MAP-21 to $835 million, but will be capped at $850 million for the final 3 years of the bill. Additionally, large metropolitan areas can “flex” half of that money to other, non-bike-ped projects.

Other policy highlights include the following:

Transit

  • Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) will now be eligible for low-interest financing through the TIFIA and RRIF programs.
  • The pilot program for TOD planning grants was preserved.
  • The threshold for TIFIA grants was lowered to $10 million (from $50 million), allowing better access for communities with smaller projects.
  • The requirement for domestic content in buses and rail cars was increased from 60 percent today to 70 percent by 2020.

Freight

  • States will be required to study their freight movement and come up with multi-modal solutions. Yet, 90 percent of the dollars to fund those solutions must go to highway projects—a slap in the face to ongoing international climate change talks, given that truck freight alone accounts for 12.5 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions.

Safe Streets

  • For the first time ever, Complete Streets language made it into the bill, requiring state DOTs and MPOs to consider all road users.
  • Communities will be permitted to circumvent their state design manuals and use more flexible ones—such as the NACTO Urban Streets Design Guide.
  • States in which 15 percent or more of traffic deaths are people biking or walking will be eligible for a new priority safety fund to reduce such fatalities. (New Jersey and New York are eligible for the funds, while Connecticut is borderline, with 14.9 percent.)
  • In two years, USDOT will be required to produce a report on implementation and best practices for Complete Streets.

“Tomorrow’s Dollars”

While many progressive policy ideas were cut out from the final bill, conservatives and liberals agree on one point: the FAST Act is not funded in a fiscally responsible way.

The biggest missed opportunity of this Act is that it is not a user-fee based program, failing to raise or index the gas tax. The bill formally reauthorizes the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax and fills the $16 billion annual budget gap with $70 billion in offsets from other programs in budget.

1 Comment on "The FAST Act: “Tomorrow’s Dollars to Pay for Yesterday’s Ideas”"

  1. Clark Morris | December 7, 2015 at 3:34 pm |

    Given that buses already get an exemption from the gas tax and that road maintenance (as opposed to expansion) needs already outstrip the current gas tax and in many states the buses don’t pay it, why should any part of the gas tax go to transit? We already have the situation where the private citizen buys the automobile while the taxpayer buys the bus and then is told to pay to help run it because the riders can not or will not pay the costs of operation.

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