Washington – Congress unveiled a final, five-year transportation bill on Tuesday that would boost money to the states and change the way Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor routes are funded.
The $281 billion bill that would authorize spending for roads, bridges and mass transit is a long-awaited compromise between House and Senate bills that were approved earlier this year.
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act would raise transportation funding to the states by 5 percent in fiscal 2016, rising to more than 15 percent in 2020.
“The increase in funding is welcome news,” said Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart. “Most importantly, a five-year bill provides a basis for planning and advancing projects which has been absent for the program for the last several years.”
Inability to agree on a way to bolster the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to fund road and transit projects, has forced Congress to approve a series of short-term bills to keep federal transportation money flowing to the states.
The nation’s governors, including Connecticut’s Dannel P. Malloy, have been pressing Congress to approve a long-term bill to facilitate the planning of large infrastructure projects.
The FAST Act is expected to be approved by the House and Senate this week, before the latest transportation “patch” runs out on Friday.
The bill would set funding levels for dozens of programs and make changes to federal transporation policy.
A proposal to end a $263 million transit program that would have cost Connecticut more than $25 million was scrapped. The program, which benefits seven states with half the nation’s transit riders — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland — would have been turned into a competitive grant program open to all of the states.
“Potential reductions to high-density bus funding were averted, which is also very good news for Connecticut,” Everhardt said.
The highway bill also would revive the Export-Import Bank, a government corporation that helps American companies sell products overseas. Connecticut companies, especially General Electric, have been lobbying Congress to reauthorize the bank since its shutdown this summer, a victim of conservative Republican concerns that it helped big corporations at taxpayer expense.
The highway bill would reauthorize the bank until September of 2019.
The highway bill also would authorize money for Amtrak. But it includes a provision pushed by Republicans for years that requires revenue generated by trips in the Northeast to be used only for improvements in the highly used corridor. That could force Amtrak to streamline its longer routes elsewhere in the country.
The bill authorizes $450 million for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in 2016, and $1 billion for the “National Network,” or Amtrak’s routes in the rest of the nation.
It also calls for more financial transparency from Amtrak, requiring the railroad to provide separate accounting for all of its routes.
Amtrak declined to comment on the changes the FAST Act would make to its operations.
“We appreciate the hard work and strong bipartisan support from the leadership of the committees of jurisdiction in moving forward this transportation legislation,” Amtrak said in a statement.
“We thank Congress for recognizing Amtrak as a vital mode of transportation and including Amtrak in the Surface Transportation Bill for the first time in history….the passage of The FAST Act will help keep America moving for years to come.”
The bill also rolled back a provision that Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and safety advocates had objected to in earlier versions of the bill.
The provision would have allowed drivers as young as 18 to drive big rigs across state lines under certain conditions. Forty-eight states already permit 18-year-olds to drive large trucks within state borders.
The compromise bill does authorize a pilot program to test allowing veterans and reserve members under age 21 who received training during their military service to take large trucks across state lines.
“It seems to be improved in some conditions,” Blumenthal said of the legislation. ”On the other hand, the bill seems worse in other provisions.
One of them, Blumenthal said, would allow railroads up to five years to implement positive train control, a safety technology that can slow or stop a train.
Blumenthal did not commit his support for the bill.
“I’m still going to review it,” he said.
The bill would replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed largely through a 18.5 cents a gallon gasoline tax, by selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s emergency stockpile; and taking money from a Federal Reserve account that helps banks pay for potential losses.
But the new funding sources aren’t permanent – they would last only five years.
The bill dodges the larger issue of providing a long-term source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, which is running a shortfall because the gas tax has been eroded by inflation and an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency.