LGN Federal Relations Policy Brief: Federal Transportation Funding

Although Congress is out of session for its August recess and passing a large bipartisan infrastructure package is less likely to become reality, other major transportation and infrastructure initiatives have a real opportunity to pass a divided Congress and be signed into law by the president.

America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA) of 2019 and the annual Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (“T-HUD”) appropriations bill are the two key pieces of transportation legislation we see potential impact or opportunity for our clients. With August recess underway and the presidential campaign’s paralytic effect on the legislative process around the corner, the transportation policy landscape will be significantly shaped in late 2019. For Minnesota cities and counties, this legislation is where a number of critical infrastructure projects will get federal funding, from rural and suburban highways to urban transit systems.

America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA) of 2019, otherwise known as the surface transportation reauthorization bill, is the most significant transportation-specific legislation that will be taken up in September. This bill will replace the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation), the most recent surface transportation bill, which was passed by Congress in 2015 and expires at the end of September 2020. The FAST Act authorized $305 billion over fiscal years 2016 through 2020 for highway, highway and motor vehicle safety, public transportation, motor carrier safety, hazardous materials safety, rail, and research, technology, and statistics programs.  The ATIA authorizes $287 billion over five years, including $259 billion for formula programs to maintain and repair roads and bridges. The bill was passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee at the end of July, but still faces a long pathway to becoming law. The Senate Committees on Banking and Commerce, Science, and Transportation will both introduce and pass their own versions of the bill, which will be combined into a single bill prior to passage by the Senate. That bill will then need to be combined through a conference committee with a House version prior to approval by the president. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said at the end of July that his committee was still working on drafting the House version of the bill.

The T-HUD appropriations bill will also be taken up in September. In June, the House passed their version of the bill as a part of a “minibus” spending package that funded a number of additional federal agencies. The House bill would provide a significant increase of funds to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would distribute infrastructure grants to state transportation departments and local governments. Unlike the surface transportation reauthorization, the House is far ahead of the Senate on this year’s appropriations process: while the lower chamber has already passed 10 of the 12 annual bills, the Senate has yet to have their appropriations bills introduced, reviewed by committee, or passed. Senate leadership has said they are waiting for last month’s budget deal between Speaker Pelosi and the Trump Administration to begin writing their bills. It is expected that the Senate Appropriations Committee will unveil their proposed 2020 spending numbers shortly after their return from the August recess.

Below is a full analysis by Emily Tranter of the transportation policy debates and developments happening in Washington.  Emily Tranter provides LGN’s clients with a deep set of skills and experience including transportation, infrastructure, and aviation issue area expertise, close relationships with government and agency policy-makers, and extensive experience leading complicated legislative advocacy efforts.

America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act

The America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA) will be the core policy of the United States on surface transportation from 2021 through 2025. As such, the provisions in the version passed by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, as well as the versions that will eventually be passed by the full House and Senate, serve as a guide to the transportation priorities of Congress. The $287 billion in spending that the bill would authorize represents a 27% increase from 2015’s FAST Act, providing an opportunity for state and local governments to gain access to funding that was not previously available. Below, you will find a list of some of the most important provisions in the Environment and Public Works version of the ATIA:

  • The ATIA will codify parts of the Trump Administration’s One Federal Decision policy, which aims to streamline environmental reviews and project authorizations.
  • The ATIA will authorize over $6 billion for a new competitive bridge grant program; over half of bridges in the National Bridge Inventory are currently classified as being “structurally deficient.”
  • The ATIA will create a new resiliency program called PROTECT, which will distribute $786 million per year in formula grants and $200 million per year in competitive grants aimed at helping at-risk communities recover from and prepare for natural disasters.
  • The ATIA will create new safety improvement grants, including $100 million annually awarded via competitive grants aimed at high-fatality and injury areas and $250 million annually for reducing animal-vehicle collisions.
  • The ATIA will maintain the off-system bridge set-aside, which requires that no less than 15% of Surface Transportation Block Grant funds will be allocated to bridge projects that are not a part of the federal-aid highway system.
  • The ATIA includes a new environmental title that will award both formula and competitive grants to reduce vehicle emissions and relieve congestion in major urban areas.

Mass transit and railway provisions will be added to the bill from the Senate Committees on Banking and Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Finally, the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee will be responsible for determining the “pay fors” that will provide for funding of various ATIA initiatives.

Transportation Appropriations

While only one of Congress’s two chambers has released their preferred numbers for Fiscal Year 2020 transportation funding, this bill gives the first framework for the likely funding levels for the Department of Transportation, and the grant programs that it oversees, will look like next year. The bill released and passed by the House earlier this summer would be one of the largest Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) appropriations bills ever passed. The $137 billion bill would allocate the U.S. Department of Transportation $86.6 billion for FY2020, which would be $167 million more than FY2019 and $3.7 billion more than the president’s budget request. Below, you will find a summary of some of the House bill’s spending numbers:

  • $2.3 billion for the Capital Investment Grants program. Of that amount, $1.84 billion would have to be obligated by Dec. 31, 2021, or the Transportation Department would have to redistribute that money to projects already in the engineering phase.
  • $750 million for discretionary transit infrastructure grants.
  • $1 billion for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) discretionary surface transportation grants, which would be $100 million more than fiscal 2019.
  • $1.75 billion in discretionary funding for highway infrastructure, which would be $1.5 billion less than Fiscal Year 2019 and $1.45 billion more than the president’s budget request.
  • $1 billion for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which would be $44 million more than 2019.
  • $350 million for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program.
  • $1.6 billion for FAA aviation safety programs, which would be $267 million more than fiscal 2019.
  • $500 million in discretionary funding for Airport Improvement Program grants.

While Senate Appropriations Committee members have expressed a desire to pass their bills by the end of FY2019, which ends on September 30th, this is unlikely. Many in Washington are now expecting the House and Senate to approve a short-term continuing resolution, or C.R. late next month to fund the government for a number of weeks or months while the FY2020 spending bills are finalized.

Infrastructure Package

While many had hoped at the beginning of the year for a major bipartisan infrastructure deal, that dream appears mostly dead in the midst of the August recess. In April, President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were, ostensibly, able to reach a preliminary deal on a two trillion dollar infrastructure deal, but Republicans and Democrats quickly began to disagree over how to pay for a potential deal. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio said in May that he wanted to move a bill through his committee regardless of what may happen in the Senate, however, such a bill was never unveiled. The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that if a major piece of legislation, like a trillion-dollar infrastructure package, did not have momentum before the August recess, it is unlikely to happen in the current Congress. The likelihood is now that a package of the scale being discussed earlier this year will not be seriously undertaken until 2021 when a new Congress is sworn in after the presidential election.

New FAA Administrator Confirmed

The Senate confirmed former airline executive Stephen Dickson to run the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Wednesday, July 24. Mr. Dickson previously served as the senior vice president-flight operations for Delta Air Lines Inc. While at Delta, Mr. Dickson served in several posts advising the government on modernizing the air-traffic system, which will be one of his top responsibilities at the FAA. Mr. Dickson also attended the Air Force Academy and was a fighter pilot before flying for Delta. He retired from the airline on October 1, 2018.

During his tenure at Delta, Mr. Dickson was a member of the FAA’s NextGen Advisory Committee, where LGN’s Emily Tranter was able spend time working with him one-on-one as they both worked to shape aviation policy outcomes. Ms. Tranter and the rest of the LGN Federal Relations Group are excited to continue to work with Mr. Dickson as he assumes his new role leading the FAA.

The FAA Administrator job has been vacant since Michael Huerta, who had been appointed by President Barack Obama, stepped down in early 2018 at the end of his five-year term. Since Administrator Huerta stepped down, Daniel Elwell has been serving as the FAA’s Acting Administrator. In addition to the confirmation of Mr. Dickson, both the House and Senate passed a special waiver for Mr. Elwell to keep his job as the Deputy Administrator at the FAA. The waiver (S. 2249) allows for two former military officers to fill top FAA spots at the same time and was signed by President Trump on August 2.