Yesterday, U.S. DOT did something it hadn’t done for a decade: submit a surface transportation authorization bill to Congress.
And what a bill it is. The $302 billion, four-year GROW AMERICA Act has several major reforms that would shift federal policy in a more multi-modal direction. One big change that we’ve noted before is that transit would get a bigger slice of the pie, but there are several other new proposals worth a look.
Before our overview, a caveat: President Obama’s funding plan — although it may align with that of the head tax man in the Republican House — has already been dismissed as a political non-starter. And Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer has indicated she’s not in the mood for major policy changes this go-round. So, take this bill for what it is: a blueprint of the administration’s vision and a menu of options that, in an ideal scenario, Congress would pick and choose from in crafting the bill.
Here’s some of the best of what the bill does:
- Changes the Highway Trust Fund into a multi-modal Transportation Trust Fund. The bill would replace the current system’s highway-centric orientation, which shunts transit funding off to the side, with a truly multi-modal trust fund. It would include not just highways and transit but also intercity rail (which has long been marginalized in a separate bill and funded with unpredictable general funds) and the popular TIGER grant program (which has a history of funding innovative, multi-modal projects). The TTF would also include the New Starts/Small Starts transit grant program, which has historically been funded with general funds, separately from the trust fund.
- Allows tolling — including congestion pricing — on existing Interstate lanes. For highways that are part of the Interstate system, the rule has always been that tolling is only allowed on road expansions, which is one reason you often see agencies widen highways when they implement HOT lanes, for instance. But upkeep of existing highways is expensive and states have struggled to find ways to pay for it. Some states, like Pennsylvania, have been seeking expanded tolling authority for years, to no avail. In this bill, the administration proposes to allow the tolling of Interstates for the purpose of reconstructing them or — and this is the really exciting part — “for the purpose of reducing or managing high levels of congestion.” Each case would still need the sign-off of the U.S. DOT secretary. The bill also explicitly says that toll revenue can be used for transit and for environmental improvements along the highway corridor. “One criticism of congestion pricing has been that it hurts low-income people,” says Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress. “Using toll revenues to subsidize transit within the corridor ensures greater equity while also improving performance for drivers and freight carriers.”
- Makes TIGER permanent and creates a new competitive grant program. TIGER would get $5 billion total over four years and no longer have to fight for its place in an appropriations bill every year. The GROW AMERICA Act also calls for a new program called FAST (Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation). FAST seeks to spread what U.S. DOT considers to be “best practices,” including the integration of transportation planning with land use and economic development, as well as funding mechanisms that “convey the full social cost of travel decisions to users” and giving local governments the authority to raise funding for transportation — which some cities have struggled with for years. Indianapolis, for instance, had to fight hard to get authority from the Indiana legislature to go directly to voters for more transportation funding. The FAST program would further these best practices and be funded at $1 billion annually.