T4America Blog

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U.S. DOT offers great proposals, but the program needs more money to make them real

The Obama Administration last week unveiled its bid to save the federal transportation program with only months to spare before most states and metro areas lose the majority of their funding to maintain and improve transportation networks – unless Congress acts.

While the Administration foreshadowed its priorities in its March budget request, the proposal – dubbed GROW AMERICA – marks the first time since the mid-2000’s that an Administration has submitted a full reauthorization bill to Congress. [See our summary of the provisions here.] While it stops short in some respects, the Administration bill is an important acknowledgement that we need not only to shore up the funding, but also to update the program goals and structure to support today’s economy.

In one sense, the $302 billion, four-year GROW AMERICA Act was drawn up by the people most intimately familiar with what is working, or not, in the current program – the DOT leaders who must interact with communities every day as they work to implement it.

Reading between the lines, they found that rigid adherence to funding silos for each mode does not work for today’s needs. They learned from the TIGER program that there were countless projects that could solve multiple problems for communities, businesses and freight handlers, but that existing, single-mode programs did not allow them to happen.

The first, critical, change the U.S. DOT suggests is to put all dollars for transportation infrastructure into a unified trust fund and shield it from budget fights such as the recent sequestration. During that budgetary debacle, some transportation programs – such as transit construction – were slashed while others were unhurt. Communities that are investing to preserve and improve the infrastructure our economy depends on deserve to know that all their promised funding is safe, not just some of it.

The GROW AMERICA Act would begin to infuse the federal transportation program with the promising ideas of competition and incentive-based funding.  While most funding under MAP-21 is distributed automatically by formula, the GROW AMERICA Act would establish several new  competitive and incentive grant programs.  One, modeled after the highly successful TIGER program but more than twice as large, would provide $5 billion over four years for competitive grants to fund projects with a mix of modes, including highways, bridges, transit, passenger and freight rail, and ports.

Another program – Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation, or FAST – is modeled after the Department of Education’s Race to the Top. It would allocate $4 billion to support incentive grants to states or metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that adopt innovative strategies and best practices in transportation, such as creating their own multimodal trust funds or giving local governments more latitude to raise their resources.

The biggest problems with the bill come down to money. The Administration proposes $87 billion to rescue the highway trust fund and provide new resources, but has said only that the money would come from unspecified corporate tax reforms. While that one-time infusion would be welcome, it does not address the ongoing shortfall resulting from declining gas tax revenue. Worse, without the additional increment of funding, very little about the current program would change, because the most exciting proposals are layered on top of the basic structure of MAP-21. Meanwhile, the bill makes no provisions even to study or pilot future revenue sources, such as vehicle miles traveled fees.

These are just a few highlights of the GROW AMERICA bill. Read our summary for more details, and watch this space over the next couple of weeks as we take a closer look at some of the individual proposals in the bill.