TPB News

New Federal Transportation Law Brings Changes, Opportunities for Region

Sep 4, 2012

Three years and eleven short-term extensions after the previous funding act expired, Congress in June passed a new law authorizing the expenditure of federal funds for transportation through September 2014.

The new Congressional authorization -- referred to as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21 -- authorizes $54.6 billion in spending on transportation in each of the two years during which the law will be in effect, starting October 1. That amount is equal to existing funding levels under the previous authorization plus a small increase to account for inflation.

Congressional authorization is required before the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) can provide funds to assist in the construction, maintenance, or operation of transportation facilities like roads, transit systems, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Along with the funding in the new law come changes to the national programs and policies that guide transportation investment at the regional, state, and local level. Several of the changes will affect the Transportation Planning Board and the Washington region.

One of the most significant changes is the consolidation of nearly 90 different funding programs into fewer than 30, a change that will impact two programs that the TPB has been responsible for administering for the last six years: Job Access Reverse Commute, or JARC, and New Freedom.

The new law eliminates the JARC program, transferring to the transit agencies in the region the responsibility for implementing projects and programs that assist low-income commuters.

Funding for New Freedom will continue to flow to the Washington region, but will be combined with funds from another program that also supports transportation projects and programs that aid individuals who have disabilities or age-related mobility limitations.

In addition to JARC and New Freedom, MAP-21 also consolidates the existing pedestrian and bicycle, recreational trails, Safe Routes to School, scenic overlooks, and historic preservation programs, among others, into one new program called Transportation Alternatives.

Under the law, 2% of each state's total annual allotment of federal dollars for transportation will be designated for use under the new program. Half of the money will go directly to the states, which can choose not to spend the money on such projects under certain conditions, while the remaining half will go to metropolitan areas -- in some cases directly to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) like the TPB -- to be awarded to implementing agencies or organizations in each region based on a competitive selection process.

The TPB will also be affected by a provision in the new law calling for states, MPOs, and transit agencies to move toward a performance-based approach to transportation planning, using performance measures established by USDOT to set achievement targets and monitor progress toward reaching them. The new requirements will support existing work by the TPB to develop a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan for the Washington region built on measures of progress made toward achieving goals already agreed to at the regional level.

Another new item in the law affecting the region more broadly is a provision expanding the authority of states to toll interstate highways, which Virginia is preparing to do on the Capital Beltway with the 495 Express Lanes and which others, including the TPB, are studying elsewhere in the region. The law says that states can only toll lanes that are added to the existing roadway or converted from existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.

MAP-21 also expands the scope of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program, or CMAQ, which supports measures that are likely to reduce congestion and help metropolitan areas reduce vehicle-related emissions.

Under the law, states with areas that are in "nonattainment" or "maintenance" for federal standards for fine particle pollution emissions, or PM2.5, will be required to spend 25% of their CMAQ funding for those areas on efforts to reduce such emissions. MAP-21 also authorizes use of CMAQ funds for building or installing electric and natural gas vehicle recharging and refueling stations, something not included in the previous authorization.

Transportation projects of regional or national significance will also continue to be supported under MAP-21 in the first year of the law, when up to $500 million in funding will go to the kinds of projects previously supported under the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, or TIGER.

Finally, the new legislation calls for a nearly ten-fold expansion of the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act program, or TIFIA, which provides loans to attract investment in major transportation projects that will generate revenue over time. TIFIA currently provides $122 million a year in loans, but that amount will grow to $1 billion by 2014.

Although the TIFIA expansion provides new financing opportunities, it does not address the need to secure new sources of funding for transportation in the long-term.

The federal gas tax, which is the main source of current transportation funding, hasn't been raised since 1993, and inflation alone has eroded more than a third of its purchasing power over the last twenty years. Rather than addressing the need for long-term funding sources, the new law relies on short-term fixes using transfers from the general fund that will be offset by obscure revenue sources like pension insurance premiums and taxes on "roll-it-yourself" cigarette machines.

Despite its lack of new long-term funding solutions, the new Congressional authorization for federal transportation programs through September 2014 is a welcome alternative to the short-term extensions that, until July, had been keeping the federal program afloat. In the wake of the MAP-21 legislation, many states, MPOs, and transit agencies -- including the TPB and others in the Washington region -- will have to make some changes to existing programs and operations, but will be presented with new opportunities and will benefit from the certainty of sustained federal funding over the next two years.

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Editor's note: TPB Weekly Report will resume normal Tuesday distribution next week.

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