National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Proposed GROW AMERICA Act could modernize transportation policy

By Jessica Monahan

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) introduced the GROW AMERICA Act, the Obama Administration’s proposed federal surface transportation reauthorization bill. The current transportation funding law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), is set to expire at the end of September.

The Administration’s bill, introduced April 29, would replace MAP-21 by providing a four-year authorization of federal highway, transit and rail programs at an increased funding level of $302 billion.

MAP-21 passed Congress in the summer of 2012, providing a two-year authorization of federal surface transportation programs with essentially level funding (a total of $105 billion for FY13 and FY14). The programs authorized by MAP-21 are primarily funded through the Highway Trust Fund, which collects revenue from the federal motor fuels tax.

The Administration proposes funding the programs with current revenue plus $150 billion in one-time transition revenue from business tax reform.

Similarly, in February, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) released his tax reform proposal, which included $126.5 billion in dedicated revenue to cover the Highway Trust Fund for eight years (at current spending and gas tax levels). The trust fund revenue identified in Camp’s proposal would be raised by a new two-tiered tax on repatriated overseas funds.

Of particular interest to counties, the bill would:

  • provide increased funding for federal surface transportation programs, including $199 billion for highway and road safety programs, an increase of about 22 percent above FY14 enacted levels, and $72 billion for transit systems and expanded transportation options, a nearly 70 percent increase above FY14 enacted levels
  • establish an Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Center, housed at U.S. DOT designed to reduce project delivery time by coordinating interagency action, supporting innovative pilots, and providing tools, training and technical assistance
  • prevent new Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) from being designated within metropolitan statistical areas already served by an existing MPO and require coordinated planning and performance target-setting in those areas already served by multiple MPOs
  • authorize the secretary of transportation to identify a subset of MPOs serving areas of 200,000 and above as “higher performing MPOs” based on a set of established criteria. Those MPOs would then qualify for a 50 percent increase in suballocated funds from the Surface Transportation and Transportation Alternatives programs. States would also be required to suballocate obligation authority to all MPOs representing areas with populations of 200,000 or more, on an annual basis, which would be available for four years. In addition, the high performing MPOs would receive an amount of obligation authority distributed to the states for federal-aid highways and highway safety construction programs.
  • provide funding for two new discretionary programs through DOT, including $1.25 billion for a TIGER-like program and $1 billion for a program called the Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation (or FAST) program. The FAST program is to be modeled after the Department of Education’s Race to the Top and would award funding to a states, tribes or MPOs to spur the adoption of bold, innovative strategies and best practices in transportation. Twenty-five percent of the FAST funds would be set-aside for the higher performing MPOs. While local governments would be eligible applicants under the TIGER program, they would have to partner with the state or MPO in order to receive funding from the FAST program.
  • make changes to the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program, which would include defining a “rural infrastructure project” as a “surface transportation infrastructure project located outside of a Census Bureau-defined urbanized area.” It would also give the secretary of transportation the authority to use up to $5 million from the program to assist with the TIFIA-related fees collected from the sponsors of small projects (projects with eligible costs not exceeding $75 million) — these fees are typically between $300,000–$500,000
  • establish a Critical Immediate Investments Program, to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges on the interstate system, target safety investments on non-state-owned roads, and support a state of good repair on the National Highway System
  • add a discretionary component under the Bus and Bus Facilities program, under which projects would be competitively selected for funding, and
  • amend the urbanized area transit formula (5307) program to allow general public demand-response service operators in large urbanized areas to use Section 5307 funds for operating assistance.

“We’re pleased the administration’s bill focuses on increasing federal investments, while also providing new resources and incentives for local governments,” said NACo President Linda Langston, supervisor, Linn County, Iowa. “With the pending insolvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund and expiration of MAP-21, we’re encouraged by the renewed attention by the Administration and key transportation leaders in Congress.”

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to be the next to release its bill, with the House following a goal of introducing legislation in the late spring or early summer.

In April, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee leadership announced their plan to provide a six-year bill that would authorize highway and transit programs at current funding levels, plus inflation. With current Highway Trust Fund projections, even level funding will not be possible without congressional action to fix the trust fund’s solvency.

NACo continues to advocate for county priorities in MAP-21 reauthorization, including increased investment in locally owned infrastructure in local areas of all sizes.