/ Transportation / Congress Completes Deal That Protects Transportation Funds, Implements FAST Act Increases

Congress Completes Deal That Protects Transportation Funds, Implements FAST Act Increases

Parul Dubey on May 10, 2017 - in Transportation

Under an agreement to fund all government agencies for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, Congress approved 2017 appropriations to maintain highway, transit, aviation, rail and waterway programs and provide another $500 million for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER infrastructure grants.

The House passed the omnibus funding measure May 3 and the Senate on May 4, both by solid bipartisan majorities, sending it to President Trump to sign into law before the latest stopgap funding resolution was due to expire on May 5.

The measure allows state DOTs and transit agencies to finally gain access to this year’s scheduled funding hikes that Congress previously authorized and paid for in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, increases that total about $1 billion for highway programs and nearly $400 million for transit and have been delayed since the Oct. 1 start of this budget year.

Governors and state DOT executives have told Congress that the seven-month delay in allowing those fiscal 2017 funding increases to take effect could leave some states or transit agencies challenged to put those funds to work in the current construction season. That is especially the case for states in cold climates that have a short window to bid out and complete roadway projects, where officials have warned they might have to delay some projects they would otherwise have begun this year.

Congress provided the Federal Highway Administration with an additional $528 million for its emergency relief account, on top of $100 million already in the FAST Act. The agency taps that account to provide state DOTs and federal land agencies with quick-release funds to help pay early repair costs when disasters damage their road and bridge infrastructure.

A summary of the 2017 funding bill’s highlights for the USDOT said the bipartisan agreement – which was negotiated by appropriators and leaders of both chambers and parties – includes $43.27 billion for the Highway Trust Fund’s federal-aid highways programs, consistent with FAST Act levels.

However, the legislation rescinds $857 million of unobligated contract authority held by state DOTs, as a budgetary offset to other spending areas and to be removed proportionally from specified highway program accounts. This rescission will be based on those program balances as of May 31, and take effect on June 30.

The bill also allows the DOTs to repurpose old, unused project earmark funds with certain restrictions; those amounts are yet to be determined.

It provides $12.4 billion to the Federal Transit Administration, of which $9.7 billion is for formula grants out of the trust fund. It also provides $2.413 billion for other capital investment grants, above the $2.302 billion that was authorized in the FAST Act. Lawmakers provided that funding to both cover transit projects that already have full funding grant agreements with the FTA and to set aside specific federal contributions for a list of congressionally supported projects in the pipeline that are nearing the formal agreement stage.

The bill also includes $199 million for the FTA to help commuter railroads deploy crash-avoidance systems.

It funds the Federal Railroad Administration with $1.85 billion, an increase of $173 million from 2016. That includes $1.17 billion for Amtrak’s national passenger rail network and $328 million for its Northeast Corridor, plus $98 million for FRA railroad improvement grants and $258 million to support rail safety and research programs.

The Federal Aviation Administration is funded at $16.4 billion or $127 million above the 2016 level. The summary said that provides full funding for all air traffic control personnel and the FAA’s Contract Towers program, plus more than $1 billion for its Next-Generation traffic control systems to help ease system congestion. It also continues support for the “Essential Air Service” program that subsidizes rural airport operations in many states.

The USDOT’s Maritime Administration receives $523 million under the bill, including $5 million to support “marine highways” that help mitigate roadway congestion by moving more cargoes by water.

The bill also provides $644 million to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that regulates trucking and bus operations on the nation’s highway. And it sets aside $3 million for the USDOT’s National Surface Transportation and Innovative Finance Bureau, which was created by the FAST Act to promote efficiency by creating a “one-stop shop” that consolidates several DOT grant and loan programs.

Outside of the DOT, the bill increases a grant program the EPA uses to help ports, state agencies and others convert older diesel-burning vehicles, marine vessels and other equipment to use cleaner-burning new engines or alternative fuels. And it increases a Commerce Department grant program that often aids transportation infrastructure projects that support economic development.

It funds the Army Corps of Engineers at $6.038 billion, an increase of $49 million above 2016. That includes $2.66 billion for navigation projects and studies, of which $1.3 billion is from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that pays for federal dredging projects. And it makes full use of estimated annual revenues from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund that supports lock and dam improvements. It supports six new waterway project construction starts and up to six new studies, and provides $1.72 billion to support storm damage reduction activities.

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