House marks up transportation reauthorization bill
On Thursday, October 22, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee will mark up H.R. 3763, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRRA). STRRA would authorize $325 billion for the nation's highway, transit, and safety programs over the six-year period of FY 2016-21, although it has been reported that the Ways and Means Committee will only be able to find sufficient funding for the first three years. Illinois would receive an estimated total of $8.8 billion in highway funds over the life of the bill, or an average of $1.47 billion annually. In comparison, current law will apportion about $1.37 billion to Illinois this fiscal year. Illinois would receive $3.37 billion in mass transit funds over the life of the bill, or an average of $562.2 million annually. This represents a decrease in funding in comparison to current law, which apportions $576.6 million to Illinois. After markup, the bill will move to consideration by the full House and, if approved, would need to be reconciled with the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act, the six-year reauthorization bill passed by the U.S. Senate in late July.
Like the DRIVE Act, STRRA largely builds on current federal transportation policy in MAP-21, continuing its emphases on program consolidation, expedited project delivery, and private participation in project financing. However, STRRA, again like the DRIVE Act, goes beyond MAP-21's freight policy in significant ways, crafting a more multimodal national freight policy and providing first-ever dedicated funding for freight projects.
STRRA Freight Provisions
STRRA would broaden MAP-21's freight policy from a highway-centric focus to a more multimodal system, for example by requiring a multimodal National Freight Strategic Plan and by defining a new National Multimodal Freight Network. STRRA would first tweak the existing National Freight Network, taking its Primary Freight Network and combining it with any remaining Interstate facilities into a new "National Highway Freight Network"; states would be allowed to make small additions to this network to close gaps or make new connections. Both U.S. DOT and state DOTs would play a role in redesignating the National Highway Freight Network every five years. Next, STRRA would direct U.S. DOT to designate a new National Multimodal Freight Network, embracing all freight modes and not constraining the network to a mileage cap. Like the highway network, the National Multimodal Freight Network would be subject to redesignation every five years.
Additionally, STRRA would create a first-ever dedicated source of funding for freight improvements. Its "Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects" program would be authorized for a total of $4.46 billion over the life of the bill, averaging about $745 million annually. This competitive program would be targeted to large infrastructure projects (generally projects costing at least $100 million), and a wide range of agencies -- including metropolitan planning organizations and local governments -- would be eligible to apply. Eligible activities would generally be restricted to highway projects, including highway-rail grade crossing improvements. However, a total of $500 million -- a little more than 10 percent of the program's total funding -- may be applied toward rail or intermodal projects that demonstrate a significant improvement to freight movement on the highway network. Finally, STRRA would reserve 20 percent of the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program for improvements in rural areas.
STRRA Suballocated Funds
STRRA would make other policy changes of interest to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and local governments, principally through changes to the federal transportation program suballocated to regions. STRRA would rename the Surface Transportation Program (STP) (as the "Surface Transportation Block Grant Program") and increase the suballocated share of these funds by one percentage point each year, from the current 50 percent to 55 percent in both FY20 and FY21. It would also appear to expand the list of eligible projects to be funded from STP. Further, the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) would also be renamed (as the "STP Set-Aside") and funded at a flat $820 million each year, taken off the top of the STP funding apportionment. The bill would also let large MPOs such as CMAP flex up to 50 percent of their TAP funds to support any STP-eligible purpose.
Comparison to DRIVE Act
The House's STRRA and the Senate's DRIVE Act share many similarities. Both are six-year bills that provide sufficient funding for the first three years only. Although the exact legislative language varies, both bills would require additional action by Congress to provide the necessary funds for the remaining three years. Note that the DRIVE Act contains three years' worth of funding offsets, while no offsets have yet been identified by the House Ways and Means Committee for STRRA; reportedly, the House plans to identify three years of offsets as well. The bills' funding levels are fairly similar, with both providing modest annual increases over current funding levels, although the DRIVE Act would provide larger increases.
Additionally, most of the policy changes for both bills are related to freight policy. Both build out freight provisions, redesignating MAP-21 networks into highway-only and multimodal networks, creating multimodal policy language, and creating new freight funding programs. However, there are differences in how the two bills define their freight funding programs: STRRA would provide less funding for freight and would only provide competitive funds, while the DRIVE Act would provide more funding for freight and include both competitive and formula funds. Additionally, the DRIVE Act provides more opportunities for non-highway projects to receive funding.
Like the DRIVE Act, STRRA would enact many of CMAP's freight policy positions, including to establish funding for a national freight program and to allow greater participation by MPOs in the planning and programming processes. These policy positions have been approved by the CMAP Board in its federal agenda and enjoy support from other major MPOs across the country. Additionally, leaders from the seven counties in northeastern Illinois, the City of Chicago, and the CMAP Board recently cosigned a letter to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee echoing these positions, as did many members of the Illinois Congressional delegation.
However, STRRA's freight policy comes up short in several ways. While its planning and policy language are multimodal, its funding programs are still highway-centric. Only a small portion of funds -- about 10 percent -- can be used on other modes of transportation, and only then after demonstrating a nexus to the highway system. While investments in other freight modes are likely to facilitate improvements to the highway system, this additional reporting requirement could prove burdensome to applicants, hampering the efficacy of the STRRA in meeting the needs of the nation's freight system. Additionally, STRRA would reserve a fairly high share of funds -- 20 percent -- for rural areas, despite the fact that the majority of freight is handled in the nation's metropolitan areas. Moreover, the nation's worst freight bottlenecks are all located in major metropolitan areas like Chicago. A truly strategic freight plan would take a more performance-based approach in recognizing and addressing the nation's freight pinchpoints.
Nevertheless, STRRA is a good place to continue the meaningful conversation about national freight policy. CMAP will continue to advocate for its well-established federal policy positions, particularly those related to freight, as the House and Senate meet to confer on their respective reauthorization bills.