For the first time in a decade, Congress passed a long-term authorization for transportation – which was also signed by the President – earlier this year, known as the FAST Act, short for Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. The FAST Act provides a total of $305 billion from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal Year 2020, primarily for the Federal Highway Administration (FHA).
In addition, funds will also be provided to the Federal Transit Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Federal Railroad Administration over those five years. Of that amount, $226.3 billion has been ear-marked for highways.
The FAST Act builds on the program structure and the reforms that were included in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), which became law in July 2012. MAP-21 created a performance-based surface transportation program and built on the highway, transit, bike, and pedestrian programs and policies established in 1991.
Given that the FAST Act is building off of MAP-21, the two really go hand-in-hand. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration decided to provide guidance to transportation agencies around the country on how and why performance measures are vitally important to the National Highway System (NHS), especially related to non-freeway facilities.
In essence, the Federal Highway Administration wants agencies to examine the performance of their highways – especially the arterial road system – so that the congestion and efficiency can be improved and travel delay can be reduced, which will in turn reduce emissions, such as when speeds increase from 20 mph to 40 mph.
But why so much focus on performance measurements? The objective of the program is for states to invest resources in projects that will collectively make progress toward the achievement of the national goals. The idea behind the goals is that performance management will transform the Federal Aid Highway Program and provide a means to the most efficient investment of federal transportation funds by refocusing on national transportation goals, increasing the accountability and transparency of the Federal-Aid Highway Program, and improving decision making.
This doesn’t mean the federal government is entirely in the drivers seat when it comes to funding all of these projects. While the transportation industry is thrilled with the passage of the FAST Act, it is clear that long-term financing of infrastructure will fall to the state and local jurisdictions.
Another positive for the public and the industry: the stability provided by a five-year bill. This commitment is even more welcome news than the increased spending. In recent years, highway funding has primarily been short-term extensions. Without a longer-term financial commitment, states have a difficult time committing to the large-scale infrastructure projects that desperately need attention all across the U.S.
Keep in mind, however, the national transportation industry is going to need to rely on new technologies to help solve the congestion crisis that currently exists in the United States. We can’t simply build and pave our way out of this issue. Transit as we know it today is far too expensive. We have a significant challenge just maintaining the systems, let alone adding more to the mix.
One of the biggest conundrums we are currently facing – and grappling with – is between now and 15 to 20 years down the road when it is believed self-driving vehicles will result in more efficient roadways. In the meantime, we need to maintain our existing roadways, eliminate at least some of the congestion, while also planning for a time when driverless cars are the norm.