Surface Transportation Reauthorization: Sustainability for the Future

Chris Burroughs | Transportation Intermediaries Association

This month’s issue of 3PL Perspectives magazine centers on the word sustainability. In contemplating an article that addresses the latest political environment, I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the need for the reauthorization of our nation’s surface transportation projects. Investment in our infrastructure is the definition of sustainability.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) was signed into law on December 4, 2015 by President Obama and is set to expire on September 30, 2020. Time is running out for Congress to reauthorize this important piece of legislation, which provides the states the certainty they need in building sustainability with their projects at the state level.

On July 30, 2019, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee unanimously approved out of Committee a bill that authorizes $287 billion over five years, including $259 billion for formula programs to maintain and repair America’s roads and bridges. The total represents an increase of more than 27% of FAST Act levels. The legislation includes provisions to improve road safety, streamline project delivery, protect the environment and grow the economy.

This was a huge first step, and outside the normalcy of the legislative process, because typically with spending bills, such as a surface transportation reauthorization, the U.S. House of Representatives takes the lead and sends language over to the Senate as the “mark.” This was also a first for a surface transportation bill, because it included a somewhat controversial “green” title, with several provisions aimed at dealing with climate change. This was somewhat surprising, with the Senate being controlled by the Republican party, but nevertheless an important step towards addressing climate change issues and concerns.

While this was a huge first step, in the grand scheme of things it was nothing more than a baby step, as action from the Senate Committees on Commerce, Finance and Banking are still required to move a bill forward, so essentially the Senate is only a quarter of the way there.

The House of Representatives’ Democrats recently acted by releasing their framework that would invest $760 billion over five years to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, transit systems, railways, airports, ports, inland waterways, wastewater and drinking water systems, brownfields and broadband. They describe this framework as, “an opportunity to get our existing infrastructure working again and fund new transformative projects that will create an estimated 10 million jobs, while reducing carbon pollution, dramatically improving safety, and spurring economic activity.”

Specifically, the Democrats’ framework outlines the following provisions:

• Brings existing infrastructure into a state of good repair and enables the completion of critical projects through long-term, sustainable funding.

• Sets a path toward zero carbon pollution from the transportation sector, creating jobs, protecting our natural resources, promoting environmental justice, and increasing resiliency to climate change.

• Ensures a transportation system that is green, affordable, reliable, efficient and provides access to jobs.
• Provides safe, clean, and affordable water and wastewater services.
• Prioritizes the safety of the traveling public.
• Helps combat climate change by creating good-paying jobs in clean energy, investing in energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas pollution.
• Expands broadband internet access and adoption for unserved and underserved rural, suburban, and urban communities.
• Modernizes 911 public safety networks.
• Creates family-wage jobs with Davis-Bacon Act and other strong worker protections.
• Supports U.S. industries, including steel and manufacturing, through strong Buy America protections.

One of the key pieces needed to move an infrastructure package before the expiration of the FAST Act in September 2020 is finding a long-term funding solution that shores up the Highway Trust Fund. The framework released by the House Democrats is essentially silent on how they propose to fund the $760 billion investment. The same is true for the Senate bill as well.

No matter how Congress decides to pay for the investment in the sustainability of our nation’s infrastructure projects, the simple fact remains: our nation needs the investment now. Our crumbling infrastructure continues to fall further and further behind many other countries across  the globe, and states cannot appropriately plan and budget for project investment without certainty from the federal government.

2020 will be an interesting year for sure on many different fronts in the political environment, but no matter if you are a Republican or Democrat, we need infrastructure investment
now.      

Chris Burroughs is Vice President of Government Affairs with TIA. He can be reached at burroughs@tianet.org.

Image credit: iStock.com/franckreporter