Quality roads and bridges are a necessity for any modern nation. But maintaining a transportation network that stretches from sea to shining sea is no easy task. Not surprisingly, the challenge mostly comes down to money. “Whether there is sufficient funding to meet the nation’s surface transportation needs is the most pressing concern,” according to a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) spokesperson…
“The consequences of insufficient funding include postponed projects—accelerating America’s growing investment needs—gradually worsening conditions, congestion, and so on. More bridges may need to be restricted from carrying heavy trucks or closed if their condition becomes bad enough—which will inevitably restrict freight traffic and slow down the economy. Trying to keep ahead of America’s ever-present maintenance and repair needs, let alone new construction in areas where it is needed, is a constant.”
The responsibility to maintain roads and bridges begins with local and state governments. “In terms of prioritization of specific transportation projects, along with financial planning, the process starts at the state or local level with transportation planners who undertake a comprehensive analysis and evaluation of the potential impact and public benefits of the project,” the FHWA spokesperson explains.
An agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation, the FHWA supports state and local governments in the design, construction, and maintenance of the nation’s highway system (Federal Aid Highway Program) and various federally and tribal owned lands (Federal Lands Highway Program). The goal is to ensure that America’s roads and highways continue to be some of the safest and most technologically sound in the world.
In 2009, the FHWA launched the Every Day Counts (EDC) initiative to shorten the timelines of highway projects and to address the fact that many states are challenged by limited budgets. Developed in cooperation with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), EDC is a state-based model that identifies and enacts proven but underutilized innovations in order to help shorten the project delivery process, improve roadway safety, reduce traffic congestion and improve environmental sustainability. “Helping the states to learn about these new tools saves them time and resources that can be used to deliver more projects for the same money,” the FHWA spokesperson explains.
Signed into law on December 4th, 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act is the first federal law in over a decade to provide long-term funding certainty for surface transportation infrastructure planning and investment. “The FAST Act is a long-term, bipartisan surface transportation act that increased funding, provided much needed reforms, and removed the cloud of funding uncertainty over the surface transportation system,” the FHWA spokesperson explains.
The FAST Act authorizes $305 billion over fiscal years 2016 through 2020 for highway, motor vehicle safety, public transportation, motor carrier safety, hazardous materials safety, rail, and research, technology, and statistics programs. The Act also provides a dedicated source of federal funding for freight projects for the first time. “With the enactment of the FAST Act, states and local governments are now moving forward with critical transportation projects with the confidence that they will have a federal partner over the long term,” the US Department of Transportation website summarizes.
The FAST Act establishes a new National Surface Transportation and Innovative Finance Bureau within the Department that will act as a one-stop shop for state and local governments to seek federal funding and financing, as well as technical help.
The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) will provide the money for most of the programs in the Act. The HTF is made up of the Mass Transit Account and the Highway Account, which funds highway and intermodal programs. Federal motor fuel taxes are the major source of income into the HTF, but the FAST Act also transfers additional funds into the HTF to keep the Fund solvent through the end of fiscal year 2020.
The FAST Act has a core focus on streamlining transportation projects. The law is designed to reduce the bureaucratic red tape that is notorious for stalling development. The timeline for obtaining a permit will be shortened and the online system to track projects and interagency coordination processes will be improved.
Safety is at the heart of the FAST Act. The law includes multiple provisions that aim to reduce transportation accidents. The maximum fine against non-compliant auto manufacturers has skyrocketed from $35 million to $105 million. Rental car companies are no longer allowed to knowingly rent vehicles that are under a safety recall. The FAST Act also strengthens the Department’s safety oversight of transit agencies and streamlines the Federal truck and bus safety grant programs in order to give the states more leeway as they seek to improve safety in those sectors. But, the law also reduced the Department’s ability to share data with the public.
Since the FAST Act went into effect in December, the FHWA has been working to implement the law as quickly and effectively as possible. First year priorities have focused on several goals. To provide highway stakeholders and the public with key information on the law’s provisions, the FHWA has been developing summary materials such as fact sheets and presentations. The agency has also been working to get funding to the states, local governments, and tribes that need it so they can get to work on their transportation projects. In addition, the FHWA is issuing guidance to clarify the details and is moving forward on regulations related to the law.
The FAST Act is expected to help a wide range of surface transportation projects get underway, but the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that it will only address the tip of the infrastructure iceberg. The ASCE infrastructure report card for 2013 determined that $3.6 trillion is required to meet the country’s infrastructure needs by 2020. “It is worth pointing out that the $3.6 trillion covers a lot more territory than the FAST Act,” the FHWA spokesperson remarks.
“In addition to the types of infrastructure covered by the FAST Act, the ASCE figures include energy, schools, public parks, recreation, ports, inland waterways, aviation, wastewater, hazardous waste, drinking water and dams. But no doubt the FAST Act is only a down payment on the real work that needs to be done to meet the nation’s infrastructure demands in terms of highways and bridges. The nation will have to be more creative in exploring different ways to fund our highway system. At the same time, FHWA is working with our state, local and industry partners to make the entire project delivery process more efficient so the public gets the greatest value for every tax dollar.”