It’s Great We Finally Have a Transit Funding Bill—But There’s More to Do
This month, President Obama signed into law the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, giving the country its first long-term transportation funding bill in a decade.
As president of the American Public Works Association (APWA), I congratulate Congress on its exceptional bi-partisan effort to pass the bill, providing $305 billion for the funding of transportation infrastructure in the United States over the next five years. But it’s not a perfect bill. We have more work to do.
This new legislation provides stability for longer-term planning and implementation of transportation projects, stability that has been absent since the expiration of the last major funding bill in September 2009. The five-year term of this law gives Congress, the states, and local governments an opportunity to identify, analyze, and evaluate new funding sources for transportation infrastructure improvements in the future.
The legislation also helps local governments with additional funding to address failing local bridges. Local municipal agencies own and operate 51 percent of our nation’s bridges, and the FAST Act increases the distribution of Surface Transportation Program funding to local governments from 50 to 55 percent over the next five years. The newly established National Surface Transportation and Innovative Finance Bureau will help states, local governments, and the private sector with project delivery.
Beyond providing money, the FAST Act streamlines environmental review and permitting provisions. One of the most costly and continued failures in transportation this decade has been project delays due to slow environmental reviews. Using an average of five percent inflation for construction, a $700 million project can see costs escalate $35 million per year, or nearly $100,000 per day, due to an unreasonable, slow environmental approval process. A simpler environmental review and permitting process is now in place now to bring this large cost expenditure to a halt. It is important to keep the approval timeframe to a four-year maximum.
In addition, the new law strengthens the very important emphasis on reducing fatalities and making our nation’s highways safer for our citizens, whether they are traveling by motor vehicle, bicycle, or foot. The FAST Act increases the percentage of funding states can spend on safety programs.
While there are many things to celebrate, there is still important work to be done that must not wait until 2020 when the act’s expiration is approaching, as Congress has done in recent years. All options must be reviewed to ensure adequate funding—almost twice the amount currently provided—for maintenance and capacity and safety improvements to our nation’s transportation system.
The law is auto-centric, with a lack of targeted funding for bike and pedestrian projects that promote physical and social health, decrease emissions, and ease congestion. And it could do a better job identifying and implementing a combination of funding methods that can best serve our federal, state and local transportation needs. Since local agencies have ownership of so much of the nation’s transportation system, they need new funding methods for repairing, rehabilitating, and improving city streets and county roads.
Studies show federal requirements add approximately 20 percent to the costs of implementing local transportation projects. By improving our processes and requirements to reduce those added costs to only 5 percent, we could stretch the purchasing power of the FAST Act from $305 billion to almost $351 billion. Our nationwide transportation system’s funding needs are increasing, so we must become as smart and efficient with our limited funding revenues as possible.