Congress acts. Legislators—and stakeholders— come together to start repairing America.
By Zoe Lipman, Senior Policy Advisor at the BlueGreen Alliance.
Diagram from Denver Regional Transportation District shows where parts came from for their RTD Rail System.
On Thursday the U.S. House and Senate passed a 5-year $305 Billion transportation bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (or “FAST’” Act), and on Friday the President signed it. After more than a decade of short-term extensions that hobbled desperately needed forward-looking investment, legislators came together to agree on a long-term bill that makes possible the city, state, multi-state, multi-modal investments on which the health of the economy depends.
Kudos to the lawmakers who put American communities, workers and businesses ahead of partisan grandstanding, to the cities and states who led by example over the past decade, and to the many transportation advocates (including a number of the BlueGreen Alliances’s labor and environmental partners) who sweated the details that go into crafting (and negotiating) a policy agreement.
Several of our partners and key transportation advocates have more detailed overviews of the bill and lay out a variety of strengths and weaknesses (See here what the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), NRDC, Transportation for America, and Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, (TTD) had to say, amongst others). But several features jump out as key steps down the path of repairing America’s infrastructure and economy:
The bill jumpstarts critical infrastructure investment.
Many desperately needed transportation projects are huge, and there is a huge need for transportation projects in communities across the country. The five-year agreement (and the signal sent by the fact that Congress managed to achieve this agreement) is critical to provide the investment certainty necessary for the large, long-term projects now stuck on drawing boards. The bill also brings passenger rail (Amtrak) into the surface transportation bill for the first time, and makes new commitments to upgrading bus systems.
The bill includes important procurement and financing measures that bring improved infrastructure and equipment to more communities more cost-effectively.
Our public dollars shouldn’t just deliver bridges and subway cars—they should also deliver on quality jobs, public safety, and local economic development.
Notably, the bill further assists communities across states to bundle their projects together into larger procurements. This helps cities take advantage of economies of scale in planning and procurement and it helps small and rural communities access transit equipment they might never otherwise be able to afford. Sustained investment, scale, and certainty are equally critical for American manufacturing companies looking to invest to supply advanced transportation technologies in the US and compete globally. Thousands of companies and tens of thousands of jobs depend on our investments in transportation infrastructure. (The BlueGreen Alliance’s and Environmental Law & Policy Center’s (ELPC) report on vehicle, component and materials manufacturing in the passenger and transit rail sector is here). On the financing front, the bill expands eligibility (but reduces funding, unfortunately) for the extremely popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program that leverages public and private funds for projects of regional or national significance. It extends the TIFIA model to smaller projects, engages state infrastructure banks, and facilitates metropolitan projects through new “regional infrastructure accelerators”.
The bill takes steps to keep our investments in infrastructure on the high road.
Our public dollars shouldn’t just deliver bridges and subway cars—they should also deliver on quality jobs, public safety, and local economic development. Sound labor and environmental standards and use of domestic materials and components can help ensure the best safety, economic and environmental outcomes from these projects. The bill underscores a long-standing commitment to domestic content in our public infrastructure and helps make sure manufacturers get credit for use of domestic iron and steel. The bill helps ensure the quality of public-private partnerships, and makes important commitments to public and operator safety. Transportation systems and technology are changing rapidly, and while the bill does include a new $60 million advanced technology deployment fund, it could go further to spur innovative planning and position America’s communities to take advantage of emerging transportation technologies. Some also fault the bill for failing to adopt improved performance measurement, which means that getting the best value from these projects will depend on leadership from transportation agencies and continued community engagement in implementation.
So what’s next?
At the end of the bill are a number of provisions that are almost completely unrelated to surface transportation, but they’re not unrelated to the broader task of repairing America. Several address improving efficiency and affordability of multi-family housing and underscore the major opportunity to make gains on energy, jobs, and quality of life through improvements to the building sector. Another provision will plan to establish a Strategic Transformer Reserve highlighting a shortage of critical components to our electric grid, and underscoring the importance of a new generation of investment in a cleaner, more secure and reliable energy system. What we’ve started in transportation we need to continue with respect to our electric infrastructure, our methane distribution pipelines, our broadband systems and many more.
Yes, the bill may be just a down payment on the many urgent investments needed to fully modernize the foundations of the U.S. economy, but it’s an important step down that path. We may not be firing on all cylinders quite yet—and until we fix the Hudson River Rail tunnel it’s not quite a light at the end of the tunnel—but we are finally on the right track.