Government Issues

Pub Perspective: New FAST Act commendable, but not perfect fix

Posted on January 25, 2016 by James Blue

The new law that reauthorizes federal surface transportation programs, known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, was just signed by the president at press time. Although many of us are still combing through its pages, and implementation of the new bill will come in the form of regulations yet to be written, several things are clear now. Overall, it is only marginally better than its predecessor legislation, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). Much more needs to be done.

A mixed bag, forged in compromise
There is plenty in the FAST Act to like over MAP-21. First, the new law is a fully-funded, five-year bill, while its predecessor covered a little more than two years; barely enough to enable state and local authorities to plan or move forward any projects. It’s also the first long-term bill enacted in a decade, after 10 years of multiple short-term extensions, complicating planning even further. Moreover, the $11.8 billion of funding authorized for the current fiscal year represents a 10.2% increase over last year’s level. Finally, certain program changes, such as a new intercity rail program, restoration of discretionary bus grants and preservation of intercity bus grants, are also welcome news.

The bad news, however, begins with the subsequent levels of funding in the FAST Act: It virtually freezes this year’s level for the next four years. Combined with the mandated increases in domestic content and other Buy America changes, the FAST ACT could actually result in fewer public transportation supply chain jobs.

The FAST Act also kicks the can of how-to-fund-these-programs-after-the-life-of-the-bill down the road. Funding for this law was cobbled together with a slew of one-off ideas, such as selling a few million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and profits earned on the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet. The result is that about $90 billion to close the revenue shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund will need to be found if another multi-year bill is to be enacted at the same or greater funding.  

The consensus is preserved
Still, the efforts of those in Congress to craft and pass this bill are to be strongly commended given the polarized political climate in recent years. Conservatives and liberals alike worked hard to get this bill to President Obama’s desk. Only the most extreme wing of one party lost in this struggle. Given the deadlines and the political gridlock on almost everything else, it’s a wonder that anything became law, much less a largely good bill. Yet while it shows the consensus around a strong federal role in public transportation policy and funding was preserved, passage of the FAST Act also shows that there is much more work to be done.

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