With Transportation Issues Looming, 2015 Could Be Major Year for Policy Action

AASHTO Journal, 23 December 2014

uscapitol_night.jpg Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol

When considering what to expect for transportation in 2015, start with the nation’s capital, where there is an unusual alignment of congressional authorization bills needed for highways, aviation and rail programs.

This comes at a time when single-party control of both chambers should make it easier for Republicans to enact legislation, and a Democratic president is saying he thinks he can work with the new GOP majorities on infrastructure issues.

Meanwhile, a number of states are either taking action of their own to beef up their own highway and transit revenue, or starting to talk about it at the leadership level in hopes of crafting new plans.

So with all that as background, here’s a list of possibilities to look for in 2015.

-The House Transportation & Infrastructure could turn first in 2015 to passing a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, whose current authority runs out next September. That bill could include all sorts of issues, from fare advertising policy to allowing more use of contract air traffic controllers and privatizing airports, to drone rules and privacy concerns.

-Also expected early is an Amtrak passenger rail bill. T&I leaders unveiled one this past year and could work from it again, making adjustments where necessary. While it did not include freight rail issues, some rail shipper groups have been trying to get any final bill to address some of their rail competition concerns, while major freight lines have said they want any bill to ease a mandate to deploy crash-prevention systems by the end of 2015. As with FAA legislation, the Senate would act separately, and the two chambers would negotiate a final bill.

-A highway/transit refunding could involve three time lines. Some in Congress have suggested that when lawmakers need to raise the federal debt ceiling in March to allow more borrowing, they could also negotiate outlines of a broad agreement on overall taxes and revenue that could include the Highway Trust Fund. That fund runs out of spending authority on May 31, and many observers think Congress will need to extend it at least a few months. President Obama has said he expects any long-term HTF deal to be part of a broad tax overhaul that could take six to nine months to negotiate – meaning late summer or early autumn of 2015.

-Many states are acting already. Governors or state transportation executives are talking about getting new revenue packages through their legislatures during 2015 in Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Jersey.

Michigan lawmakers this month approved a complex package of measures that voters will need to decide in May; it could raise $1.3 billion more a year for transportation, nearly all of it for roads and bridges. Kentucky raised an alarm, saying a sharp drop in its percentage fuel tax is cutting transportation revenue. Kansas faces a loss of transportation funds to help cover a state budget deficit.

The list goes on, but it signals that many states are debating revenue-raising measures both to pay for projects and to lock in dedicated funds to help generate the local match they need when drawing money from the Highway Trust Fund.

-Special events in the coming year include AASHTO’s annual Washington briefing in February, which is the chance for state transportation officials to hear from and help lobby congressional leaders on the big policy agenda for the coming year.

In May, there is AASHTO’s spring meeting to be held in Cheyenne, Wyo. That same month in Washington a heavyweight lineup of infrastructure-related associations including AASHTO combine to produce “Transportation Week,” which combines attention-getting policy events with Capitol Hill visits to raise lawmaker awareness.

AASHTO’s annual meeting will be in Chicago next September, about the time Congress will need to finalize any legislation that needs to be passed before the next budget year starts in October.

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