EPW Takes Lead With 6-Year Highway Bill That Would Boost Infrastructure Investment

AASHTO Journal, 26 June 2015

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a six-year highway bill June 24 that increases funding, adds a freight projects program that would be allocated to states on a formula basis and creates a new grant program for major projects to be selected by the Federal Highway Administration but approved by Congress on a project-by-project basis.

The measure, dubbed the DRIVE Act, would cover only the highway portion of any eventual highway/transit bill that still needs safety and transit sections provided by other Senate committees. And it would need agreement on a way to cover the costs, plus similar authorization and financing action from the House.

epw.png Ihhofe, Boxer introduce their DRIVE Act.

But EPW Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., and ranking member Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., hoped their committee’s quick action and unanimous support for the measure would spur efforts elsewhere in Congress.

Today our committee proudly took a step forward in advancing our nation’s economic interests by unanimously passing the DRIVE Act, a six-year surface transportation bill,” Inhofe and Boxer said in a joint statement.

“The time to act is now so that Congress can provide states and local communities with the certainty they deserve in rebuilding our roads and infrastructure,” they continued. “We will be working with Senate leadership to bring this bill to the Senate floor before the Highway Trust Fund expires at the end of July.”

They had unveiled the bill publicly just a day earlier, along with leaders of their transportation subcommittee. Here is their summary of what the bill would do, and the legislative text they introduced.

Numerous transportation investment advocacy groups praised the EPW action, and called for Congress to build momentum to complete a long-term bill in July. Two heads of state departments of transportation carried a similar message in congressional hearings, urging lawmakers to promptly pass a strong, long-term bill. (See related story in this week’s Journal).

The EPW measure – officially the “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act” – would authorize $275 billion in highway program funding over six years.

That includes a 6.9 percent rise in first-year authorized funding for fiscal 2016, and annual increases of 2.1 to 2.5 percent through 2021, according to a staff analysis from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

If it passed Congress in that form, the bill would take the total authorized level of federal-aid highway programs from just under $41 billion in 2015 to $43.8 billion in 2016 and $49 billion in 2021.

A new national freight program would be funded from the Highway Trust Fund at nearly $2 billion in the first year and reaching nearly $2.5 billion in the sixth year. That money would be apportioned to states under a formula based on the percentage of total federal-aid highway funding that a state receives.

The plan would also set aside funding that states would be required to spend on bridges that are not part of the designated National Highway System, increase the percentage of funding that is required to be spent in urban areas and allow local governments to select all projects funded under the Transportation Alternatives Program.

The bill would cut the funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIFIA program, which generates long-term, low-cost loans for projects that have a guaranteed repayment stream. It would go from $1 billion now, which leverages much more in actual loan values, to $675 million a year under the DRIVE Act. Eligibility for TIFIA loans would be expanded to include credits to capitalize state infrastructure banks.

However, the measure would authorize a new infrastructure grant program called “assistance for major projects,” to be administered by the FHWA. But an FHWA-generated list of recommended project grants would have to be approved by Congress, much as lawmakers approved a list of water projects in the 2014 waterways infrastructure authorization.

That grant program would start up at $300 million in 2016, and rise steadily to top off at $450 million starting in 2019. While it would bear some resemblance to the USDOT’s existing TIGER grant program, in which the awards are decided by administration officials, these congressionally approved grants would only be available for projects for which the total cost is at least $350 million.

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