The new 1300-page transportation bill (Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or FAST) provides little strategic direction on that subject. Instead, it's a grab-bag of favors for lobbyists layered on top of a status-quo highway-heavy program with an intercity rail authorization thrown in. Steve Davis of Transportation for America has a good summary write-up of many important issues (including the freight program dominated by highways) here while Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation (who always has spreadsheets handy) has very usefully provided breakdowns of spending by program and state. This huge spending bill dishes out more than $300 billion of taxpayer money, mostly to state highway agencies whose chiefs must now be held accountable for spending our hard-earned money well.
So what did lobbyists get out of it all?
Harmful Favors to Lobbyists
The first thing that jumps out is that more than 10 percent of its pages are chewed up by so-called "streamlining," namely overhauling environmental reviews of highway, transit and rail projects. This includes versions of the three items from the House bill described in this piece, which remove an opportunity for public comment, delegate reviews to a patchwork of state laws which may or may not be as protective as federal law and bias alternatives analysis in favor of whatever a proponent wants no matter how costly (or damaging). It also includes provisions that create a different and review method for non-transportation infrastructure projects. This may be the largest single topic covered by this bill, which is bizarre and unwarranted (and pushed by well-heeled industry lobbyists). Congress overhauled reviews in MAP-21 just three short years ago. This is wasteful micromanagement of an industry that has a bigger strategic problem, namely awful performance measurement of its plans and programs! Congress should stop whipsawing agencies with set after set of petty rules about projects and focus more on big-picture performance metrics.
Second, the notion of tying funding to transportation system usage is now a mess. Congress plugged a $70-billion hole due to a gas tax that hasn't increased in more than two decades with fiscal gimmicks (this seems to confirm the contention of some allies that the "trust fund" as a policy tool is dead). Perhaps the oddest is future sales of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve - 66 million barrels from 2023-2025 - that justifies transferring $6.2 billion of the needed monies from the general fund. This taps a source of oil meant for emergency purposes, not to be raided to pay highway contractors. Unfortunately, this is just one way this bill hurts our oil security - by funneling the lion's share of dollars for roads and highways while leaving the gas tax untouched it is likely to boost the nation's oil consumption. The bill also makes it more difficult to expand tolling of roads, which can also help moderate oil demand. As such it counteracts laudable fuel-efficient-vehicle policies that the Obama Administration has adopted.
There is one section of the bill that purports to address security, though it has nothing to do with oil (or transportation, for that matter) - a slew of provisions towards the end covering grid reliability. This was presumably dropped to please some lobbyist. And the provision it contains tackling environmental and grid reliability conflicts undermines the existing process for resolving such conflicts and instead allows the waiver of environmental laws during DOE "must run" orders for power plants. This section fails to acknowledge carefully designed environmental standards that prevent reliability/compliance conflicts from arising, and is otherwise exceptionally overbroad.
There are several smaller favors thrown in here too, many innocuous but there's at least one ugly, parochial provision shoehorned in as well. It turns out that during a bridge repair project in Kansas 1,491 nests and 818 eggs of a migratory swallow species were destroyed. This led to a substantial fine by the Justice Department pursuant to protections of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This transportation bill contains two pages which retroactively allow wanton destruction of these nests and eggs to help one particular company.
The Good News: Lobbyists Serve Worthy Causes Too
Thankfully there are several praiseworthy provisions as well. First of all, the rail and rail passenger lobbies won big with the historic inclusion of a substantial rail title in the bill which the National Association of Railroad Passengers analyzes and critiques in detail here. Second, new rules would apply to streets which make them safer and more useful for those of us who walk - their designs would have to be complete by including elements like sidewalks (what a concept!) and cities can rely on a National Association of City Transportation Officials design manual that isn't all about how fast drivers can travel (the narrow focus of state highway agency guidelines). Third, low-interest financing programs including the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act (TIFIA) are now available to advance transit-oriented development projects, a big victory for Smart Growth America and this group of real estate developers and investors. The bill also requires that intercity bus companies be at the table during metropolitan, state and intercity rail planning, which is something the American Bus Association is justifiably happy about.
There's also a section that would benefit consumers and for the environment (and energy security, for a change!). The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 directed DOT to create a tire fuel efficiency rating and information program for replacement car tires but the has been slow to act. This bill extends the 2007 program to include minimum efficiency standards, and now it's time for DOT to get to work!
The bill also contains a new program for establishing "regional infrastructure accelerators" in metropolitan areas, to be administered by DOT, which will grease the skids for making investments from programs such as TIFIA. While modest at $12 million, this program can help leverage public and private sectors since there are good projects in regions that could move forward with the assistance of such accelerators in project deal-making. For example, this can help move investments in climate preparedness as Shelley Poticha has written about here.
Tucked waaay back at the end of the bill, remarkably, in a tribute to affordable housing lobbyists there are several non-transportation sections covering low-income housing, including apartment buildings which receive assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This is a stunner to me, since my portfolio includes work on our Energy Efficiency for All project which aims to improve the efficiency of these buildings. But that has nothing to do with transportation! These provisions are really helpful, particularly one that moves an entire bill to help with the financing of improvements to these buildings and to keep rent affordable to tenants, among other things. (see 4th bill on this good list from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition). Another worth mentioning is a section establishing a demonstration project by HUD to move private investment in energy- and water-efficiency projects in apartments which receive rental assistance via budget-neutral, performance-based agreements. It will be interesting to monitor implementation of this program, which could usefully complement public and utility investment in boosting the efficiency of these homes.
In summary, this is a difficult bill to sum up! It's a huge missed opportunity when it comes to what should be its purpose, namely providing overall strategic direction and vision for the transportation system's future. It includes really ugly project-level environmental-review overhauls and fiscal gimmickry. Thankfully, it also includes some laudable provisions (including housing law improvements!).
The bottom line? This bill is the sum of all lobbies, for better and for worse.