Transportation bill will boost CT road funds and help Amtrak

The Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, known as the Q bridge, which carries I-95 over New Haven harbor.

Connecticut Department of Transportation

The Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, known as the Q bridge, which carries I-95 over New Haven harbor.

Washington – Congress  approved a  massive five-year transportation bill Thursday that would send Connecticut more than $3.5 billion in federal transportation money, bar the rental of cars under recall and commission a study that would determine an impairment standard for drivers who have smoked marijuana.

The bill would provide $281 billion, mostly distributed by formula to the states, for highway and transit projects, and it authorizes another $24 billion for transportation grants and other programs.

Over five years ending in 2020, Connecticut is slated to receive more than $3.5 billion from the federal government for highway and transit projects, about $310 million more than it has over the past five years.

With the support of all members of Connecticut’s delegation to the House of Representatives, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, was approved by the House on a 359-65 vote. The Senate was approve the bill late Thursday on a 83-16 vote.

The bill is the result of a rare bipartisan compromise. It ends years of short-term measures that many governors, including Connecticut’s Dannel P. Malloy, said made planning for large infrastructure projects difficult.

“This is not a perfect bill, but it represents an important step toward rebuilding our deteriorating physical infrastructure and the possibility of restoring the compromise that is so important to our broken political process,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said, “I would have preferred higher funding levels, but the FAST Act is a great improvement over the stopgap measures and short-term patches of the past.”

The bill would split funding for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from the funding of the railroad’s operations across the rest of the nation.

The Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston is Amtrak’s only profitable route. The company loses money, more than $600 million, a year on its long-distance routes, according to the Brookings Institution.

The bill allows competitors to bid for Amtrak’s long-distance lines if they can prove they can save taxpayers money. It also bars Amtrak from spending the money it makes in the Northwest Corridor on its other rail lines.

Amtrak did not respond to requests for comment on the bill.

The bill would also reauthorize the Export-Import bank, a government chartered corporation that facilitates the sale of U.S. goods overseas. The charter for the bank had expired this summer, even after some of the nation’s largest companies, including United Technologies and General Electric, lobbied heavily for its renewal, because of opposition from conservative Republicans who called the bank’s operations corporate welfare.

“This completes a successful bipartisan effort to surmount the ideological opposition of House Republican leadership, who allowed the charter for the Export-Import Bank to expire and unilaterally disarmed American workers and businesses trying to compete in the global marketplace,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

The bill would also implement new safety measures, but fewer than safety advocates and some Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, had hoped for.

The bill raises the maximum fine federal regulators can impose on automakers that fail to quickly report safety defects from $35 million per incident to $105 million per incident. But the bill would not impose criminal penalties on those automakers, something the safety advocates and Blumenthal had sought.

The bill also would bar rental car companies from renting cars that have been recalled, unless the necessary repairs are made.

But the bill also keeps secret the safety scores of truck companies, something safety advocates deplore.

At the behest of states who have legalized the sale of marijuana and some of their neighbors, the bill also commissions a study that would set an impairment standard for drivers who have smoked marijuana.

The bill also provides nearly $200 million to help railroads — and the state of Connecticut, which owns hundreds of miles of track in the state — implement Positive Train Control technology aimed at preventing derailments.

Besides funding large transportation projects and making big changes to transportation policy, the FAST Act also contains dozens of smaller provisions that will impact Connecticut and other states.

Backed by Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, and Courtney, the bill would allow Connecticut’s dairy farmers, who are now barred from transporting big loads on state roads, to carry heavier loads.

Another measure, sponsored by Esty, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, increases “Buy America” domestic content requirements for buses and rail cars from the current level of 60 percent to 65 percent in 2018 and 70 percent in 2020.

Esty also co-sponsored an amendment that would help bees by encouraging state departments of transportation to establish pollinator habitat on transportation rights-of-way by reducing mowing and planting milkweed and other vegetation.

“This legislation isn’t perfect,” Esty said. “There’s always more that can be done to bring our transportation systems into the 21st century, but I’m pleased the House came together today to support a long-term investment in the American people. And I am proud that my common-sense solutions were incorporated into this final piece of legislation. “

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