12 Aug America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act Starts Building Bipartisan Bridges in Infrastructure
The long wait for congressional action on infrastructure is finally over with the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) mark-up of S. 2302, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA) of 2019. The legislation, cosponsored by Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY), Tom Carper (D-DE), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Ben Cardin (D-MD), is a significant step in addressing our nation’s $2 trillion infrastructure funding gap.
The bill would authorize $287 billion in Highway Trust Fund spending over five years, a 27 percent increase from the last reauthorization bill. While the hard part—finding the revenue needed to pay for more spending—remains, the EPW Committee, in voting to advance the bill unanimously, has sent a strong signal to stakeholders that maintaining, repairing, and replacing our aging infrastructure systems is a bipartisan priority.
While the bill is just the first step in a long process and will likely undergo significant changes before hitting President Trump’s desk, below are our reflections on some of the bill’s key provisions and recommendations.
In 2017, the federal government spent $130 billion to help communities recover and rebuild after natural disasters. Despite this record amount of funding, as extreme weather and natural disasters increase in frequency and severity, even higher disaster spending may become the new norm. Building more resilient infrastructure, systems that can better withstand flooding, tornados, and other disasters, is one way to bring down attendant costs and, importantly, save lives.
The proposed legislation includes several provisions aimed at increasing the resiliency of surface transportation assets. In particular, it would:
- Allow states to use up to 15 percent of their National Highway Performance Funds on protective features (e.g., raising roadway grades and bridges, incorporating natural infrastructure, etc.) that mitigate the risk of reoccurring or future damage from extreme weather, flooding, and other natural disasters;
- Increase the federal cost-share associated with these protective features; and
- Authorize about $5 billion for a new formula and competitive grant program—called Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation (PROTECT) grants—aimed at helping states improve the resiliency of their surface transportation assets.
The USE IT Act
The EPW proposal also includes the USE IT Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of senators, including Senate EPW Chairman Barrasso (R-WY), Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI), Senate EPW Ranking Member Carper (D-DE), Sen. Capito (R-WV), and others. The USE IT Act would support carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and direct air capture (DAC) research. It would also improve the permitting process for related facilities and infrastructure. CCUS and DAC are at the forefront of American innovation. Support for these technologies is critical to addressing carbon pollution and expanding opportunities for American businesses in emerging sectors.
Given the compelling need to add resiliency to our infrastructure, lower the costs associated with disaster relief, and address climate change, we recommend that these provisions be retained as the ATIA moves through the legislative process.
Environmental review and permitting delays add to project costs, prevent needed infrastructure from being put into service more quickly, and discourage private investment in infrastructure projects. The EPW Committee included several provisions in the ATIA that could improve the process for gaining related federal project approvals.
For example, ATIA’s Title III establishes a two-year target for completion of environmental reviews for certain projects and a process by which to reconcile different types of “categorical exclusions” allowed by permitting agencies. Title IV makes similar improvements for tribal transportation projects. The bill also adds transparency measures, such as the inclusion of more data on the online Permitting Dashboard in Section 1310, to provide the public and policymakers with a better understanding of where administrative logjams occur.
While these provisions are a good start, we recommend permanently authorizing the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council and related “FAST-41” authorities and requiring agencies to conduct simultaneous reviews. (Notably, many of these changes are included in S. 1976, the Federal Permitting Reform and Jobs Act, introduced by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).)
Mileage-Based User Fees
Earlier this year, BPC launched the Great American Rebuild Initiative with former Reps. Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Joe Crowley (D-NY) to examine alternatives to the gas tax, the primary revenue source for the Highway Trust Fund. ATIA’s Section 3001 includes a similar effort, creating a federal advisory committee to explore long-term, sustainable funding options for the trust fund, starting a national research program, and authorizing $75 million over five years for state pilot programs to address issues associated with a transition to mileage-based user fees.
We support these provisions because finding a Highway Trust Fund fix is key to sustainably funding our transportation programs. However, much more work is required to prepare for any transition to a new trust fund revenue source.
Bundling small projects together has multiple advantages. A bundled suite of projects can bring the necessary scale to attract private-sector interest, and bundling takes advantage of economies of scale to deliver cost savings. For example, Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation bundled over 550 rural bridges together into a single procurement. Instead of taking potentially decades to repair or replace each bridge individually, a private consortium was chosen to design, expeditiously build, operate, and maintain all the bridges to specified standards for decades to come.
ATIA would authorize more than $6.5 billion over five years for a new “Bridge Investment Program,” intended to tackle the backlog of U.S. bridges in poor condition. Importantly, the program recognizes the benefit of bundling in the grant program’s selection criteria.
While this new grant program may go a long way in fixing poorly maintained and deficient bridges around the country, we recommend considering an incentive or preference for bundled rural bridge projects in awarding these grants. The program could also be coupled with technical assistance to help rural and disadvantaged communities scope bundling opportunities and apply for federal assistance.
ATIA would make several important changes to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Investment Act (TIFIA) program to streamline the application process, reduce delays in getting TIFIA financing approved, and finance more projects.
Among the most notable changes, the bill proposes to:
- Expand eligibility to airports and other types of projects; and
- Establish a goal of having an application acted upon within 150 days of its submission (120 days for projects that meet certain requirements).
This may help address one ongoing issue with TIFIA, the length of time the process takes. Yet a second ongoing issue with TIFIA is the inability of rural communities to access the program.
We support efforts to expand the categories of projects eligible for TIFIA loans and incorporate much-needed streamlining. Congress should additionally consider decreasing the size of a rural project that can be eligible for assistance and increasing the total project costs a TIFIA loan can cover.
ATIA’s Section 1507 would add new, retrospective reporting requirements on projects delivered as public-private partnerships. Under this section, public-private partnerships would additionally be required to conduct value-for-money analyses, despite the benefit of value-for money and comparable analyses in choosing the most appropriate project delivery option for any infrastructure project. Together, as written, these provisions could stack the decks against public-private partnerships despite their value in helping state and local governments attract private capital, expertise, and innovation.
We recommend revisiting these provisions to find a solution that is more neutral as to various project delivery and procurement options, while promoting accountability, transparency, and efficiency in all federally-supported projects.
ATIA’s Section 1205 would authorize a modest $50 million over five years for a new Prioritization Process Pilot Program, intended to support data-drive approaches to project planning and investment prioritization. BPC has written extensively about the need for public agencies to more strategically manage infrastructure assets and use data-driven processes to make investment and prioritization decisions. In our view, this begins with inventorying all assets, collecting information on their condition, and assessing costs to maintain all assets over their useful life, as some states and local governments like the District of Columbia have begun to do.
We recommend expanding and amending this pilot program to encourage public agencies to first inventory their assets, assess full life-cycle costs, and use these data points to inform project prioritization.
Instead of a comprehensive infrastructure bill, Congress will separately move a reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs and the Water Resources Development Act, which typically covers water resource projects overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. Given the costs of both initiatives, it is unlikely Congress will go beyond these sectors. Regardless, both proposals provide an opportunity to not only modernize our infrastructure but also the way the country funds and finances critically needed infrastructure.