On July 23, U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) released an infrastructure proposal that could set the stage for future legislative action. The proposal follows significant focus on infrastructure development from the Trump Administration throughout 2018, though some of its specific provisions differ from the administration’s infrastructure agenda. A path forward for Chairman Shuster’s proposal is unclear – Congress is focused on other infrastructure priorities ahead of the midterm elections this fall, like the FY 2019 Department of Transportation appropriations and a reauthorization of both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Water Resources Development Act.
Chairman Shuster’s proposal is limited to programs under the jurisdiction of the T&I Committee, but the draft document includes several programs important to counties, which are detailed below:
Counties are major owners, operators and users of local water resources and infrastructure, and sometimes rely on federal programs to build and maintain key water infrastructure projects. Some of these programs addressed in Chairman Shuster’s proposal include:
- Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) Reauthorization: The proposal would reauthorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) WIFIA program, which was authorized in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, through FY 2024. The Army Corps WIFIA program is modeled on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WIFIA program, which provides low-cost loans for water infrastructure related projects. The provision would give the Army Corps the ability to contract with the EPA to run the Army Corps $50 million WIFIA program.
- State Water Pollution Control Revolving Funds: This proposal would provide ongoing financial assistance for water quality projects, specifically the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). The CWSRF program funds municipal wastewater infrastructure construction and upgrade projects. Chairman Shuster’s proposal would reauthorize the program at $3 billion annually through FY 2023 and would require at least ten percent of grants be used for municipalities with a population of 10,000 or fewer. However, the Drinking Water SRF is not addressed in the infrastructure proposal because it is governed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
- Technical Assistance for Rural and Small Treatment Works: The infrastructure proposal would allocate $25 million through FY 2023 towards providing technical assistance for the treatment and operation of rural and decentralized wastewater treatment systems.
- Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) Discretionary Spending Limit Adjustment: The HMTF is funded through a tax levied against importers and domestic shippers using ports and harbors in coastal and the Great Lakes areas. However, while the HMTF has a large surplus, only a portion of its total is appropriated by Congress every year. The proposal would exempt the HMTF from the budget caps set in the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25) and ensure that the appropriated funding would be fully utilized.
Highway Trust Fund (HTF)
In order to maintain a robust infrastructure network, the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) must remain solvent. Counties support an “all tools in the toolbox” approach to ensuring solvency, including an increased usage of user-fees-based infrastructure. The proposal would address a few issues related to the HTF:
- Highway Trust Fund Commission: The infrastructure proposal would create a commission of 15 members, appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Speaker of the House, House Minority Leader, Senate Majority Leader and the Senate Minority Leader. The appointed members may be comprised of, but are not required to include, individuals that represent interested parties such as an individual or elected official from state, local government, public transportation authority or agency and users of the surface transportation system. The only requirements are that the commission be made up of individuals knowledgeable of the U.S. surface transportation system and the commission may not include a member of Congress. The HTF Commission would be tasked with conducting a study on HTF funding levels and evaluating the different revenue sources available to achieve necessary funding levels. The study would be released by 2021 and would provide recommendations for achieving long-term solvency of the HTF.
- Highway Trust Fund Reform and Solvency: Chairman Shuster’s proposal includes new taxes to contribute to the solvency of the HTF, including taxes on transit fuel, bicycle tires and electrical vehicle batteries. In addition to creating new taxes, the proposal would increase the gas tax from 18 cents to 33 cents per gallon in 2020 and increase the diesel and kerosene tax from 24 cents to 44 cents per gallon in 2020. Chairman Shuster’s proposal also calls for the eventual elimination of the gas tax by 2028, provided the new commission established under the bill can provide gas and diesel tax alternatives to ensure the solvency of the HTF.
Investment in Infrastructure
Counties play a critical role in the nation’s transportation system, owning 46 percent of all public roads, 38 percent of the nation’s bridge inventory and 78 percent of all public transit agencies that connect residents, communities and businesses. Chairman Shuster’s proposal addresses the following infrastructure programs:
- National Infrastructure Investments: The infrastructure proposal would provide $3 billion, which is $1.5 billion above FY 2018 enacted levels and was slated for elimination in the president’s FY 2019 budget request, for the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Grant program. Formerly known as TIGER Grants, BUILD Grants in Chairman Shuster’s proposal reflects the Trump Administration’s infrastructure agenda, including a focus on rural areas and an increased local match requirement.
- Extension of Federal Surface Transportation Programs: This infrastructure proposal would authorize additional funding for federal surface transportation programs, including the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program (STBGP). Surface transportation programs, like the STBGP, provide counties with federal funding towards the maintenance of federal highways, bridges, tunnels, roads or transit capital projects.
- Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act: Chairman Shuster’s proposal would extend the authorization of the FAST Act (P.L. 114–94) for an additional year – providing $18 billion for the legislation in FY 2021. The bill was enacted in 2015 and authorized, for a five-year period, federal surface transportation programs that support county owned infrastructure.
Accelerating Project Delivery
With counties owning a large percentage of our nation’s infrastructure, the acceleration of project delivery helps save financial resources by reducing delays and allowing infrastructure projects to be completed in a timely manner.
- One Federal Decision: The infrastructure proposal would utilize the administration’s One Federal Decision Executive Order, which aims to improve the current permitting process by consolidating decision-making, cutting costly delays and changing environmental review methods. Chairman Shuster’s proposal would also reduce the permit processing time to no more than two years, pursuant to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews.
- Application of Categorical Exclusions for Transportation Projects: The proposal would expand categorical exclusions under NEPA reviews to apply to all transportation projects, not just multimodal projects.