Obama Transportation Proposal Seeks to “GROW AMERICA”

The Obama administration this week sent to Congress its proposal for a multi-year transportation bill under the name the GROW AMERICA Act. Here’s a roundup of some of the best summaries and stakeholder reactions from around the web. I also have a variety of links to some new reports and information about some upcoming events.

What’s In the Proposal?

The multi-year surface transportation reauthorization proposal put forward by the Obama administration this week is dubbed the GROW AMERICA Act. It stands for Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America, which is quite a mouthful.

While it has already been dismissed by some as a political non-starter this year, that hasn’t stopped the analysis of what is the first surface transportation authorization bill proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 10 years.

According to USDOT, the act would:

  • Address the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund with $63 billion over the next four years and provide $87 billion to address the nation’s backlog of deficient bridges and aging transit systems;
  • Create millions of new jobs to ensure America’s future competitiveness;
  • Increase safety across all modes of surface transportation, including increasing the civil penalties the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) can levy against automakers who fail to act quickly on vehicle recalls;
  • Provide certainty to state and local governments that must engage in long-term planning;
  • Reduce project approval and permitting timelines while delivering better outcomes for communities and the environment;
  • Bolster efficient and reliable freight networks to support trade and economic growth; and
  • Create incentives to better align planning and investment decisions to comprehensively address regional economic needs while strengthening local decision-making.

Overall, the bill recommends $302 billion over 4 years—a 37 percent increase over MAP-21, the current authorization bill. Public transit is prioritized in both urban and rural settings with a call for a 70 percent transit appropriations increase. It proposes $10 billion over four years for transportation projects that improve freight transportation, with targeted investments in freight rail infrastructure.

One of the parts of the bill that seemed to garner the most attention (see more below also) was a plan to eliminate the prohibition on tolling existing interstate highways.  

GROW AMERICA Resources & Reactions

  • The U.S. Department of Transportation has a series of fact sheets on the GROW AMERICA Act including documents examining how the plan could expand the ability to move freight, make critical investments in highways and bridges, promote innovative financing, empower local decision makers and invest in rural America. A sectional analysis is also available.
  • Parsons Brinckerhoff has a preliminary analysis of the bill.
  • Streetsblog USA weighs in with “How the GROW AMERICA Act Could Modernize Federal Transportation Policy.” Among the things they like: changing the Highway Trust Fund into a multi-modal Transportation Trust Fund, making the TIGER program permanent and creating a new competitive grant program. Things they don’t like: no actual revenue proposal in the bill, not returning bike and pedestrian funding to former levels and no expansion of MAP-21’s performance measures or national goals.
  • The tolling provisions of the bill are examined in a post this week from the Nossaman Infrastructure Practice Group. Also, Ashley Halsey III of The Washington Post has “5 things to know about the Obama administration’s highway tolling proposal.” The Bond Buyer and McClatchy reported on how the provisions might work. TollRoads News has a look at who’s for and against the tolling proposal.
  • The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials offered this assessment of GROW AMERICA: “We are pleased that the Administration has submitted legislation to Congress that emphasizes the urgent need to invest in America's infrastructure," said AASHTO Executive Director Bud Wright in a press release. "We have stated previously that we support the policy framework established in MAP-21 and that we should implement the provisions of that law before making significant, new programmatic changes. We support finding a long-term, sustainable source of revenue to support surface transportation investment. While we may not agree with all aspects of the Administration's proposal, we look forward to the continuing dialogue with Congress and the Administration on charting America's transportation future.”
  • The American Road & Transportation Builders Association also weighed in on the plan. President & CEO Pete Ruane said in a statement: “We commend the Obama Administration for putting forward a four-year proposal that recognizes the need for the significant boost in transportation infrastructure investment necessary to grow the economy, create jobs, and increase the nation’s productivity and international competitiveness. At the same time, we urge Congress and the President to engage forthrightly in developing a long-term solution to address the impending financial crisis facing the Highway Trust Fund, and then move quickly to take action on a multi-year highway, bridge and public transportation investment bill.”
  • AAA: “This proposal does continue the trend of addressing the Highway Trust Fund shortfall with a solution that is short-term and politically palatable rather than long-term and fiscally responsible.  AAA is encouraged that the Administration is taking the lead in laying out the goal of a multi-year reauthorization bill, however corporate tax reform and other one-time patches must not be the only funding solutions considered.  AAA continues to believe that an increase to the federal gas tax is the most effective and sustainable funding mechanism, provided the additional funds are thoughtfully spent on transportation improvements that ease congestion and increase safety.”
  • American Public Transportation Association: “The Administration’s proposal would help address the large backlog of state-of-good-repair needs related to bus and rail transit and help expand the public transportation infrastructure to meet the growing demand,” said APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy in a press release. Last year 10.7 billion trips were taken on U.S. public transportation, which is the highest ridership number in 57 years. Clearly, people want better transportation options and it should be a national priority to expand public transit services, including intercity passenger rail. We are pleased that Secretary (of Transportation Anthony) Foxx and the Administration developed a detailed legislative proposal that calls for increased investment in transportation and a significant increase in public transportation. GROW AMERICA reflects the Administration’s commitment to the infrastructure that serves our nation and should advance the debate on this bill in Congress.”
  • The American Highway Users Alliance: “We are pleased that the Administration has proposed to increase spending on transportation over the next several years, although we are disappointed that the federally-aided, state-owned highway program is not prioritized to the same extent as other transportation modes,” said alliance president & CEO Greg Cohen in a statement. “Although the U.S. Department of Transportation’s own reports show that national highway needs are as much as six times greater than other modes and that Americans take 87% of their trips in cars, the proposal sharply reduces the share of transportation funding for highways.  We will encourage Congress to develop its own priorities. Without Congressional action, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to be insolvent as soon as July, in the middle of the highway construction season.  Any constructive proposal that is aimed at preventing this crisis is helpful.”
  • The League of American Bicyclists: “The bill sets a good tone for a healthy discussion about the role of transportation in our communities,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League, in the league’s analysis of the bill. “Issues such as equity, quality of life, health and climate change should be at the core of transportation policy; we should be building a transportation system that works for everyone; local government should have a stronger voice in funding decisions – and this bill moves us in that direction.”
  • American Trucking Associations: “While the President’s plan supports a growing program, we cannot help but be very disappointed in much of the plan his administration has put forward,” said ATA President & CEO Bill Graves, according to a press release. “Any proposal that moves away from a user fee funded transportation system is not going to be acceptable to the American trucking industry, period. Furthermore, we have real questions about the viability of the administration’s plan to use one-time proceeds from an unspecified and unlikely to pass corporate tax reform idea, along with inefficient highway tolling or private capital financing. … The focus must be on real, long-term funding answers rather than repeatedly looking for the proverbial ‘nickels in the couch cushions.”
  • International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association: “Tolling is a proven and effective tool to fund and finance more than 5,000 miles of roads, bridges and tunnels in 35 states,” said executive director Patrick Jones, according to The New York Times. “To ensure our roads and bridges remain safe and reliable requires a variety of solutions. All options should be on the table so that states can choose the funding methods that work best for them.”
  • Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates: “Tolling has proven to be an inefficient mechanism for collecting transportation revenue, consuming up to 20 percent of revenue generated, and those paying the toll may not even see that road improved because the president’s plan would allow toll revenue to go to other projects in the state,” said alliance spokesman Miles Morin, according to The New York Times.
  • Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation (in a Next City article by Stephen J. Smith): “I think an underappreciated player in this may be governors and state [departments of transportation]. …While I don’t know of any who are ready to move forward on implementing toll-financed reconstruction, they are desperate for more tools in their toolbox as the feds cut back on 50-plus years of ever-greater annual highway funding.”
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “Having a concrete MAP-21 proposal from the administration is a positive step forward in the reauthorization process,” said Executive Vice President for Government Affairs Bruce Josten in a press release. “Combined with state, local, and private-sector resources, the next federal highway, transit, and highway safety program authorization bill could—with additional resources enabling spending beyond baseline levels—start to address the nation’s backlog of transportation needs and move projects forward that will support the U.S. economy, national defense, and personal mobility. The obvious remaining challenge is finding the resources for a fiscally responsible reauthorization package. The Chamber continues to believe that raising federal gasoline and diesel taxes is the simplest, most straightforward way to address the revenue problem in the near term. MAP-21 reauthorization should deliver long-term, fully funded federal programs combined with reforms that build on its accountability and transparency measures; strong federal-state-local partnerships; provisions to enable ongoing innovation by the public and private entities responsible for designing, building, operating, maintaining, and financing transportation infrastructure; multi-year capital planning based on needs and not politics; and efficient project delivery from conception to completion.”
  • Emily Goff of The Heritage Foundation, who will be one of the presenters on an upcoming CSG webinar on the future of the federal role in transportation, has a blog post this week entitled “Four Ways the GROW AMERICA Transportation Plan Won’t Help You.”
  • And finally, Time magazine took a look at why we didn’t hear much about the bill this week (except in the places detailed above, of course).

Additional Updates & Links

  • Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer could have her committee’s transportation bill available for public consumption “early next week,” Politico reported.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee next Wednesday is scheduled to hear from Secretary Foxx about the GROW AMERICA Act and to discuss the issue of transportation funding.
  • House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Bill Shuster argues in an op-ed for Roll Call that “America’s Transportation System is (the) Foundation of American Competitiveness.”
  • From our friends at the American Society of Civil Engineers: “Highway Trust Fund 101: What You Need to Know.”
  • Transportation for America has a new report on what’s at stake for states and communities if Congress is ultimately unsuccessful in bailing out the Highway Trust Fund and approving a successor to MAP-21. The title of the report: “The End of the Road? The Looming Fiscal Disaster for Transportation.”
  • Forbes contributor and occasional Fox News Channel guest Jerry Bowyer argues in a recent op-ed that the term Highway Trust Fund is a bit of a misnomer because it’s not just for highways, it’s out of money so it’s not a fund and it can’t be trusted because it has become a corrupt “congressional slush fund.” Moreover he writes that the pending trust fund insolvency isn’t a bankruptcy because there are no legal liabilities and it’s actually a planned crisis. “Gas taxes are fairly stable and predictable revenue sources, so are tolls. If the money runs out early, it’s no accident, it’s a crisis designed to make the case for higher taxes. … Time to shut it down. The proceeds of the (gas) tax should be automatically remitted to state governments, or better yet, regional planning agencies. And regulatory barriers to privatization strategies should be repealed. We’re broke. We can no longer afford to be stupid.”
  • Our friend Emil Frankel of the Bipartisan Policy Center has a new brief up on the American Action Forum website entitled “21st Century Transportation Policy: Who Will Pay, and for What?”
  • As I mentioned above, we have a CSG eCademy (webinar) coming up later this month on the Future of the Federal Role in Transportation. You can find out more about the event and get registered here.
  • The Eno Center for Transportation has a new report out this week entitled “Partnership Financing: Improving Transportation Infrastructure Through Public Private Partnerships.” The center had a P3 working group led by two former USDOT secretaries that studied both successful and unsuccessful P3 projects nationwide to identify lessons learned for policymakers interested in using them to deliver transportation projects.  
  • The state experience with P3s was the subject of a hearing this week on Capitol Hill. Officials from Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia participated. You can read more about the hearing here and watch it in its entirety here.
  • And speaking of P3s, don’t forget about the InfraAmericas U.S. P3 Infrastructure Forum 2014 coming up in June. For the fourth year in a row, CSG is a supporting organization for the event, which brings together infrastructure developers, investors, financiers, state and federal public officials and regional transportation authorities for a variety of panel discussions on the state of the P3 industry. It’s happening June 17-18 at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. Whether you’re from a state currently active in the infrastructure P3 space or hoping to be so in the future, the forum is well worth adding to your summer itinerary. I’ll have much more about the event next week in the next issue of the CSG Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter (subscribe here) including my exclusive interviews with state transportation P3 officials from Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the meantime, check out my coverage of last year’s event, find out who’s coming this year and reserve your spot to join us in the Big Apple.