Foxx Sends Up ‘Grow America’ Proposal, Presses Congress to Act on Transportation

AASHTO Journal, 3 April 2015

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent the Obama administration’s 2015 version of the “Grow America Act” to Congress as lawmakers began a two-week recess around the Easter holiday.

As expected, the plan follows closely along lines of the first proposal Foxx sent to Congress in 2014, which sought a four-year, $302 billion reauthorization of highway, transit and rail programs. The new version seeks a six-year, $478 billion reauthorization along with some added spending proposals from the 2014 bill, packaging many of them under a broad “Transportation Trust Fund.”

foxxreporters.jpg Foxx talks with reporters after his Feb. 25 speech to AASHTO conference.

It would put significant amounts of new money into transit, passenger rail and several grant programs including for freight projects, with smaller increases in highway spending that is distributed to states.

And it would pay for them all with a onetime, 14 percent mandated repatriation tax on foreign earnings held overseas by U.S. corporations, along with existing federal excise fees on motor fuels and trucking equipment that now help support the Highway Trust Fund. It would also lift a federal ban on states tolling existing lanes of federal-aid highways.

That “Grow America2” proposal is not expected to win approval in congressional committees, which have yet to offer the more limited legislation that would be needed to reauthorize current Highway Trust Fund road and transit programs before the HTF authority expires May 31. But committees could include some of its provisions in their legislation.

In announcing the administration proposal, Foxx said “this is an opportunity to break from 10 years of flat funding,” with a robust investment plan instead of Congress passing legislation that keeps infrastructure spending near current levels.

He also urged state and local officials to keep pressing members of Congress about transportation needs. “Governors and state officials as well as mayors and local officials all over the country need to continue being relentless, too,” said Foxx, “by continuing to raise their voices in support of a transportation bill that meets both their immediate and long-term needs.”

One way the DOT plan would challenge convention on Capitol Hill is by packaging rail with the other surface modes in the same authorizing legislation and the same trust fund, something that has drawn little support in Congress. Another challenge is the push for more funds the U.S. DOT itself can award; many in Congress say they do not wish to provide the administration more grant money to spend on projects it selects across the country.

In announcing the administration’s surface transportation bill, Foxx invoked the May 31 trust fund deadline and the actions some states have already taken to remove projects from their 2015 bidding since they do not know when their federal shares will come through to help pay the bills.

“Rather than doing more, funding uncertainty has forced many states to do less instead,” the announcement said. “Tennessee, Arkansas, Delaware, and Wyoming have delayed more than a billion dollars in projects. Georgia, alone, has set aside $715 million in projects, while Mississippi has shifted its transportation dollars only to smaller maintenance efforts. As it stands, total investment in our roads, bridges, and transit systems is falling well below the level that is needed to keep them in good condition.”

Here is a DOT page with links to summaries of how the Grow legislation would affect various federal agencies.

For instance, the section for the Federal Highway Administration says the plan would invest $317 billion over six years, of which $29.4 billion would be in a targeted “fix it first” program of priority improvements such as bridge upgrades, and $18 billion would be directed into multi-modal freight projects.

The DOT included a section that lets residents and news agencies in each state or territory see how the proposed legislation would increase federal transportation funding to them.

The plan would also let qualifying local governments have more control over use of state highway funds in their areas.

Recently, Wyoming Transportation Director John Cox told a congressional panel that state transportation departments do not support such a policy. He said unless Congress would greatly increase total road funding, any shift of funds to local control would reduce the amounts state DOTs could use on federal-aid highway segments that are aligned with national interests best served by a federal program.

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