The EPW Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 (STRA-21) is a first critical step to Congress reauthorizing the surface transportation program before the current one-year extension of the FAST Act expires Sept. 30.
by Tom Curtin and Richard Lukas
This week, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee unanimously advanced a five-year reauthorization of the highway and bridge program. The EPW Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 (STRA-21) is a first critical step to Congress reauthorizing the surface transportation program before the current one-year extension of the FAST Act expires Sept. 30.
The bill reflects a number of the National Governors Association’s Principles for National Infrastructure Investment, which were conveyed to Senate and House leadership in a letter from NGA Economic Recovery and Revitalization Task Force Committee co-chairs, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster last month. Among other priorities, the bill would boost state-led safety initiatives, support more resilient infrastructure, provide for accountability in project timelines, reduce carbon emissions, and support holistic approaches to mobility and alleviating congestion.
Ensuring Dedicated, Long-term Funding and Financing
The legislation provides an overall increase in funding levels with a five-year authorization. Notably, 90 percent of funding provided to the states is by formula and the bill retains the 55 percent suballocation for areas based on population. It also makes several changes to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), with a goal of increasing program utilization. These include streamlining application processes, expanding the program to include, for two and three years respectively, airport and transit-oriented development projects, and adds flexibility by removing a requirement for prepayment of loans through excess revenues, as long as those revenues are used to support surface transportation projects. Notably, the U.S. Department of Transportation, via Build America Bureau, this week released guidance on utilizing TIFIA and Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing for transit-oriented development projects and related infrastructure. An amendment added during markup also allows multistate corridor organizations to qualify for INFRA grants.
STRA-21 also contains a number of provisions that support state-led safety initiatives, including allowing flexibility for safety-related educational campaigns, It also introduces several new pilot programs and studies. It provides for additional flexibility to fund bicycle and pedestrian facilities, while mandating minimum spending (at an 80-20 federal-state ratio) for the adoption of complete streets standards and policies, active and mass transportation planning, and transit-oriented development planning, among other tools. States that already have complete streets standards and policies in place are, with USDOT approval, excemt from this requirement.
During committee markup, an amendment was added to create a $200 million competitive grant program for “safe and connected active transportation facilities in an active transportation network or active transportation spine.”
Further, the bill charges USDOT with undertaking several studies, including conducting research on vulnerable road users, permeable pavements, roadway materials costs, best practices in stormwater management, autonomous vehicles, and other emerging technologies. The bill also directs USDOT, in coordination with Treasury, to initiate a pilot program on a national per-mile user fee, and requires updates to the MUTCD every three years.
Fix Now and Invest in the Future
The legislation includes a new grant program focused on resiliency: the Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) program. The PROTECT program is comprised of resilience improvement grants, community resilience and evacuation route grants and grants for at-risk coastal infrastructure. The bill would add resilience and natural infrastructure definitions and expand allowable uses for a variety of funds throughout the surface transportation program, including freight resilience, emergency relief projects, wildfire prevention and preparation activities (including vegetation management), stormwater management projects and practices, and waterfront infrastructure projects.
The bill also creates a program for one national and 10 regional Centers of Excellence for Resilience and Adaptation, “to advance research and development that improves the resilience of regions of the United States to natural disasters, extreme weather, and the effects of climate change on surface transportation infrastructure and infrastructure dependent on surface transportation.”
Streamline Project Delivery
Notably, STRA-21 codifies the One Federal Decision policy. This action includes accountable schedules and timelines for reviews, as well as page limitations for Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements. The bill also streamlines the Section 4(f) review process and makes a number of revisions and clarifications to the implementation of certain National Environmental Policy Act provisions with the goal of improving overall review timelines. STRA-21 also requires USDOT to report annually on any project supported by federal funds that is $1 billion or more over budget or more than five years behind schedule.
The bill supports state-led efforts to modernize and innovate in the transportation space by adding a number of eligibilities for funding, including construction of wildlife crossings, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and vehicle-to-grid infrastructure, installation of ITS technologies, and the resilience and adaptation-related features and projects noted above. It also introduces two new programs aimed at reducing carbon emissions and alleviating congestion.
The Carbon Reduction Program would be distributed by formula and support eligible projects and the development of carbon reduction strategies, as well as charge USDOT with providing technical support for building out those strategies. An amendment accepted during committee markup adds ITS capital improvements and retrofit conversion of DSRC to C-V2X as eligible project costs. Alongside the program, the bill stipulates that, within two years of enactment, states, in consultation with MPOs, shall develop a carbon reduction strategy that supports efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contains various other specified provisions.
The Congestion Relief Program would provide competitive grants to states, local governments and metropolitan planning organizations for projects in large urbanized areas (more than 1 million people) to advance innovative, integrated and multimodal solutions to congestion relief in those highly congested areas. Grant awards under the proposed program would be no less than $10 million, and could be applied to planning, design, implementation and construction of various congestion mitigation projects and programs.
Finally, the legislation contains a number of allowances to facilitate the deployment of electric vehicle and alternative fueling infrastructure, including expanded eligibility for these projects with Surface Transportation Block Grant funds, a new grant program for Alternative Fuel Corridors and a set-aside program for community grants.
The Road Ahead
While the unanimous committee vote on STRA-21 represents a significant step forward, full reauthorization of surface transportation programs is far from certain.
The Senate Banking, Commerce, and Finance committees all have titles to draft and mark up before the comprehensive bill can reach the Senate floor. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) plans to release its reauthorization proposal shortly with a markup set for June 9.
House T&I Committee Ranking Member Sam Graves, along with the Republican ranking subcommittee members, recently released a $400 billion proposal for the surface transportation reauthorization. The Republicans’ proposed five-year legislation, which only includes funding for roads, road safety and public transit, would represent a 32 percent spending increase over the funding levels enacted in the FAST Act. It focuses on priorities such as funding for rural transportation programs and streamlining project permitting, along with a resilience title, which would create a new grant program for highway projects aimed at reducing the cost and risk related to natural disasters, and that would add resilience as a criteria for a number of existing programs.
While the bill signals a move toward the Democratic position — at least in terms of funding levels — the parties remain far apart on overall principles since it is expected that T&I Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio will introduce legislation similar to his $494 billion INVEST in America Act, which was passed by the full House as part of a larger Democratic infrastructure package in 2020, but was never brought up for debate in the Republican-controlled Senate at the time. That bill proposed to increase surface transportation investment by 62 percent above current spending levels, incorporating climate change and resiliency measures into the core programs. Of the $424 billion in proposed highway and transit resources, approximately 75 percent would be directed to the core programs.
The fate of the surface transportation reauthorization is playing out as President Joe Biden and congressional leadership continue their months-long negotiations on broader infrastructure spending and priorities.