At the tail end of 2015, Americans witnessed something historical that many thought could never happen- Congress actually agreed on something. For years, Congress has been deeply divided on how to fund transportation projects and have usually opted for short-term patches to fund the Highway Trust Fund. After the 36th consecutive short-term patch bill was signed into law, Congress had until December 4th to come up with a long-term plan to fund the continuous improvements needed in America’s infrastructure. After months of meetings to craft the perfect bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act quickly passed through The House of Representatives and The Senate on the eve of their deadline. Then it landed on President Barack Obama’s desk and was signed into law on December 4th.
“This legislation will help repair and improve the critical transportation network that we all rely on every day to get to work, get our kids home safely from school, and get the goods and products we need,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA). “This bill is an investment in America and the infrastructure that underpins our economy. I appreciate the work of all my colleagues on the Transportation Committee and the Conference Committee, on both sides of the aisle, in working to move this legislation forward for our country.”
The FAST Act is a $305 billion highway bill that will provide transportation funding for the next five years. 18 In what seemed like an endless cycle of short-term patches, the FAST ACT is first transportation bill with funding that lasts longer than two years that Congress has passed since 2005. The FAST Act will spend $205 billion on improving highways and $48 billion on transit projects over the course of five years. The Act will also set traffic safety priorities, provide funding for regional buses and ferries and will set up a fund guarantee program for large freight projects. One of the more controversial aspects of the bill is that it reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank until September 2019, which has become a target for conservative republicans in recent years.
“Under the Act funding will go up by roughly 11 percent over five years. This is a down-payment for building a 21st century transportation system, though it is still far short of the amount needed to reduce congestion on our roads and meet the increasing demands on our transportation systems,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a blog post following the announcement that the bill had been signed into law.
While America may see itself as number one, when it comes to the quality of our roads, we can’t even crack the top 10. In 2014, the US road system ranked 14th. Just the year before, we came in 25th. Though America is a developed country, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our infrastructure a D+ in their most recent infrastructure report card, which comes out every Articles four years. And that ‘s not just because we have a few potholes here and there. One in every ten bridges in the United States is deemed structurally deficient, meaning it has some sort of significant defect that requires reduced weight or speed limits but is still safe to use. In an interview with CBS, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that many bridges need to be either replaced or repaired in a very dramatic way. Fixing our infrastructure isn’t an impossible task, we really only need one thing to get it done – money. However, that’s where things start to get complicated.
Traditionally, funding for highway repair and transportation projects has always come from America’s gas tax, which is 18.4 cents for every gallon. However, the tax has never been adjusted for inflation and when the Great Recession hit, America’s gas consumption plummeted. That led to the Highway Trust Fund experiencing a deficit for the first time in 2008 and every year after that. Although the gas tax brings in an estimated $34 billion annually, the government typically spends $50 billion a year on transportation projects, yet they’re hesitant to raise the gas tax.
To cover the yearly deficit that transportation funding experiences without having to raise the gas tax, Congress decided to move away from user-based funding. While a majority of the funding for the FAST Act will still come from the gas tax, a package of $70 billion in offsets from other areas of the federal budget will also be included. To accomplish this, Congress decided to change the custom fees and passport rules for applicants who have delinquent taxes, contract tax collection services to private companies, sell oil from the U.S. Emergency Stockpile, and tap dividends from the Federal Reserve Bank.
While this plan was acceptable enough to get the bill passed into law, many believe that it’s not a long-term fix. Regardless of the kinks that will need to be worked out over the years, America started 2016 on a high note with hopes that this year we might not only get a functioning highway and transit system, but maybe a functioning Congress as well.
“After 36 extensions, hundreds of Congressional meetings, two bus tours, visits to 43 states, and so much uncertainty, it has been a long and bumpy ride to a long-term transportation bill,” stated U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx. “It’s not perfect, and there is still more left to do, but it reflects a bipartisan compromise I always knew was possible.”