The funding structure is a trainwreck, for one thing.
After a seemingly endless series of short-term patches, Congress seems poised to pass a major long-term highway bill for the first time in a decade. House and Senate leaders from both parties announced they’ve agreed to the broad terms of an act called Fixing America’s Surface Transportation—yes, they named the transportation bill FAST. The five-year, $305 billion plan is fully funded up front, granting officials the planning stability they’ve been pushing.
At 1,300 pages, the new bill comes admirably close to actually stretching across the entire Interstate Highway System. Before lawmakers and policy experts pick apart all its legislative corners in the coming days, let’s take a look at five FAST components that stand out at first glance.
1. The funding mechanism is kind of a trainwreck.
In its own personal version of Groundhog Day, Congress has awakened to find the federal gas tax exactly as they left it for the past 20 years. This inexplicable intransigence—combined with increased fuel efficiency, rising construction costs, and of course inflation—has left a widening gap between how much money the Highway Trust Fund has and how much it needs to cover transportation expenditures. This gap has been covered by (legally dubious) transfers from the general taxpayer treasury in the recent past.
The FAST act will fill the funding hole with roughly $70 billion in a variety of other ways. The Hill breaks it down: $53.3 billion from a Federal Reserve bank surplus, nearly $7 billion from reduced bank dividends, $6.2 billion from the sale of oil reserves, $5.2 billion or so from customs fees, and $2.4 billion from a new tax collection scheme. If there’s going to be a fight over the new bill, funding seems like the most likely target; it’s already being described as a series of “budget gimmicks” that fail to address the core problem.
That core problem, of course, is that lawmakers refuse to consider raising the gas tax—or replacing it with another user-based system, such as a per-mile driving fee—even as they insist on keeping transportation spending the same.
2. The spending levels maintain the status quo—for better or worse.
Despite increasing calls to trim down the federal transportation program, spending levels in the FAST act remained more or less the same as they have been in previous authorizations. If anything, they’re slightly higher. Roads are set to receive more than $205 billion over the life of the bill, and mass transit will get at least $50 billion. That’s a 5 percent and 8 percent increase in 2016, respectively, according to The New York Times. In a press release, lawmakers boast that dedicated bus funding will rise 89 percent over the five years.
What appears lacking, however is any suggestion that this money focus on maintenance over expansion. A fix-it-first policy is especially important for the road money, as the recent lack of growth in per capita vehicle miles suggests it’s less wise to build new highways than to preserve existing ones.
3. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor gets a win.
In a break from the norm, Amtrak funding was outlined in the FAST act, rather than in a separate passenger rail bill. Current funding levels are more or less preserved, with Amtrak looking to get about $1.45 billion in 2016, rising to $1.8 billion by 2020. But in a further break from the past, that money is separated into two piles: one for the Northeast Corridor ($2.6 billion total), and one for the National Network ($5.5 billion total).
The new arrangement should make it easier for Amtrak to focus investments on the heavily traveled Washington-to-Boston-via-New York corridor instead of using that profitable region to subsidize money-losing (but Congressionally mandated) routes in other parts of the country. Passengers at Union Station in D.C. and Penn Station in New York might especially benefit, as the FAST act calls for Amtrak to consider revising its inefficient boarding procedure, whereby passengers crowd at the gates instead of spreading out along an entire platform.
Pets are winners, too, as the kennel carry-on program is preserved in the new law.
4. Dude, where’s my self-driving car?
Autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, don’t get much love from the FAST act. There is a cursory mention of trying to “accelerate the deployment” of self-driving vehicle technology, with a focus on advancing research. There’s also a call for the
Government Accountability Office to “assesses the status of autonomous transportation technology policy” developed to date in the U.S. But once again the federal government seems to prefer taking a backseat, if you will, to the private carmakers and tech companies racing toward America’s self-driving future.
5. Rail safety gets a lot of love—and finally some money.
Positive train control gets a modest $199 million in the FAST plan. The expensive technology that’s supposed to eliminate train wrecks caused by human error, such as the recent derailment of an Amtrak train near Philadelphia, has previously been an unfunded federal mandate, with many systems struggling to find enough cash to implement the safety upgrade.
Some rail leaders are also encouraged by the heightened oil tanker standards outlined in the new bill. It contains provisions to increase tank car protections and restrict the use of older tankers moving flammable liquids, according to Progressive Railroading. At least 10 oil train accidents have occurred in North America over the past two years.
Last but not least, the act addresses rail-highway grade crossings, another point of focus after recent accidents. The bill sets aside more than $200 million a year “for the elimination of hazards and the installation of protective devices” at these intersections. That’s a start.