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By Angela Cotey, associate editor
Last month, leaders of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee unveiled a six-year, $450 million surface transportation authorization bill, while the Obama Administration announced its support for an 18-month transportation reauthorization plan to succeed SAFETEA-LU, which expires Sept. 30.
T&I Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Ranking Member John Mica (R-Fla.), along with Highway and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member John Duncan (R-Tenn.), proposed the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009. The bill would allocate $99.8 billion for public transportation — a more than 90 percent increase compared with the current surface transportation act — and $50 billion for high-speed rail.
The legislation “presents a strategic vision that recognizes public transportation should be integral to boosting the economy, promoting energy independence, improving the environment and providing mobility choices,” said American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President William Millar in a prepared statement.
The bill calls for consolidating or terminating more than 75 transportation programs and focusing the majority of transit funding into four core categories, designed to: bring urban and rural public transit systems to a state of good repair; provide specific funding to restore transit-rail systems; provide mobility and access to transit-dependent individuals; and foster the planning, design and construction of new transit lines and intermodal facilities.
The measure would “significantly reduce the time and administrative burden for projects in the approval process,” and restructure key functions and offices within U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to institute reforms and processes that “foster greater collaboration and efficiency,” according to the legislation’s executive summary.
The high-speed rail funding would finance the planning, design and construction of 11 federally designated high-speed corridors. Greater consideration would be given to projects that encourage intermodal connectivity; produce energy, environmental and other public benefits; create new jobs; and leverage contributions from state and private sources.
Freight railroads stand to benefit from the bill, as well. The legislation proposes $25 billion for “projects of national significance” that could be applied toward large-scale intermodal or freight-rail projects. Candidates could include the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, CSX Transportation’s National Gateway or Norfolk Southern Railway’s Crescent Corridor, says National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association President Chuck Baker.
Also proposed: a $50 million annual capital grant program for regionals and short lines and an extension of the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan program.
“They’ve also proposed to decrease the interest rate on RRIF loans below market rates for positive train control projects,” says Baker.
In addition, the legislation proposes to create a National Transportation Strategic Plan, based on long-range transit, rail and highway plans developed by states and metropolitan regions to create intermodal connectivity of the nation’s transportation systems and identify projects of national significance. The legislation would establish an Office of Intermodalism within the USDOT’s Office of the Secretary charged with overseeing the development and implementation of the national transportation plan.
When the legislation was unveiled, Oberstar called on Congress to approve a new authorization bill prior to Sept. 30. However, the funding mechanism for the federal transportation program — the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) — is “in crisis” and does not have adequate revenue to meet existing commitments by the federal government, according to the bill’s summary.
That’s why the Obama Administration supports an 18-month reauthorization plan that would shore up the HTF, a portion of which funds the Mass Transit Account.
“If this step is not taken, the trust fund will run out of money as soon as late August,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement. “With the reality of our fiscal environment and the critical demand to address our infrastructure investments in a smarter, more focused approach, we should not rush legislation.”
The shortfall in the HTF’s highway account is unrelated to the current balance in the fund’s Mass Transit Account, but if Congress and the Administration consider an extension of the current surface transportation authorizing law, the legislation likely would extend authorizing law for the federal transit program, as well, APTA said.
“Transportation reform and investment is an extremely high priority, but to do the reforms and investments necessary, there needs to be some meaningful changes,” says Baker. “Since there’s nothing close to a consensus on how to do that yet, some sort of extension is pretty much inevitable at this point.”