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Pulling a FAST one on our Transportation Future

By Sean Doyle
Democracy Digital Organizer

For the first time in a decade, and after roughly three dozen short-term extensions, Congress has pulled together and passed a transportation funding law lasting longer than two years. There is only one problem: the new law misses the mark.

Having taken such a long time to get to this point, you might have reasonably expected the bill to be a significant step forward, reflecting the new realities facing our nation. With mobile technology revolutionizing access to transportation options,1millennials driving less,2 and a majority of Americans supporting more and better public transportation,3 the need for meaningful change was written on the walls.

At the very least, you might have expected that this long-awaited piece of legislation would address obvious problems, like our nation’s growing maintenance deficit,4 and offer up some commonsense solutions, like fixing our roads and bridges before building new and wider highways.

Unfortunately, this new law is little more than a continuation of the same failed ideas that got us to this point. The FAST (Fixing America's Surface Transportation) Act uses tomorrow’s money to pay for yesterday’s policies, and it does so while making it unlikely that we will substantially revisit these poor decisions for years.

Here are five reasons we object to the FAST Act, and why you should too:

1.    It does little to encourage states to prioritize maintaining and repairing our existing roads and bridges over building new and wider highways:

From 2009-2011, the latest available data, states collectively spent an average of $20.4 billion annually to expand just one percent of the current system, and an average of $16.5 billion annually to preserve the other 99 percent.5 That’s right -- states spent the majority of available funds on expanding just a small sliver of the system, rather than on repairing the rest.

Continually building roads and ever-wider highways isn’t a transportation solution. In fact, it’s only causing more problems. Today, more than 61,000 bridges in the U.S. are listed as structurally deficient,6 and if we were to give our roads and transit a letter grade, they’d earn a solid D.7 Building more roads also means there’s even more infrastructure that will need repairing in the future, and the longer we wait, the more costly repairs get.8 Leaving our roads and bridges to crumble is clearly bad policy that jeopardizes our safety, costs us billions, detracts from economic growth, and leads to nothing but more expensive and painful fixes in the future. The FAST Act does little to encourage the fix-it-first policies we desperately need.

2.    80 percent of the funding is dedicated to highways:

The interstate highway system was essentially completed during the 1980s.9 Yet three decades later, our federal transportation funding still goes largely to highways. Of the $305 billion authorized in the FAST Act, 80 percent is dedicated to highways, most of which will likely be spent on new roads rather than repairing existing ones. The remaining 20 percent is left for critical public transit investments.

Public transportation is crucial for a host of reasons, not least of which being that it decreases harmful emissions that make us sick and contribute to global climate change. A recent study from MIT found that as many as 53,000 lives are lost prematurely every year from transportation-related emissions.10 On the other hand, taking active forms of transportation like public transit, biking, and walking encourages physical activity, which is helpful in combating multiple chronic illnesses including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

3.    It’s paid for using budget gimmicks and accounting tricks:

Today, there is a $16 billion annual deficit between what the gas tax brings in and what the country shells out on transportation.11 Historically the gas tax has covered the whole cost of funding the nation’s Highway Trust Fund, but because of inflation, more fuel-efficient cars, and less driving, that is no longer the case. Since the last long-term transportation bill expired in 2009, Congress has passed roughly three dozen short-term funding patches that relied in part on transferring money from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Accounts to keep our transportation system chugging along. Often, this money was described as being fully paid for by “off-sets” that would take savings from other places in the budget to cover the cost of the new spending. Yet, in reality, many of these “off-sets” were merely budget gimmicks. They would count many years worth of savings to cover just month’s worth of expenses, or they would rely on accounting tricks that just shuffled money around and made it look like new money.

The FAST Act continues this shifty behavior by relying on roughly $70 billion in “off-sets” that are really just more of the same. The largest of these “off-sets” comes from raiding a rainy day fund at the federal reserve, a move which Ex Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has fiercely opposed, and said publically could add to the deficit. Other “off-sets” include selling off millions of barrels from the strategic petroleum reserve, and counting the estimated savings at twice the market rate oil currently sells for. When this bill expires in five years, rather than having a debate about how best to spend the money, we’ll still be debating where the money will come from, and more than likely continuing to pretend we have come up with real solutions.

4.    It cuts important environmental safeguards:

The preferred term of congressional leaders is “streamlining” environmental regulations,12 but whatever you call it the effect is the same – dirtier land, air, and water causing less healthy people. Dozens of pages of important environmental safeguards have been “streamlined” in this new bill. Congress has made changes that would allow states to substitute their own (often weaker) environmental protections in place of more stringent federal protections in order to make building new and wider highways faster and easier, without any regard for the environmental and public health consequences. The net effect is that highway projects that wouldn’t have passed muster before are now likely to be built. They will be judged less rigorously and compared to fewer alternatives. These safeguards were there to protect us from polluting and destructive projects. It’s inexplicable that Congress would try to stop them from doing their job.

5.    We’ll be stuck with bad policy for five years:

The good thing about having a long-term funding bill is that states can plan for funding over years instead of months and projects that are capitol and time intensive are easier to commit to. We also don’t have to have a time consuming debate about policy and funding every few months or years. On the other hand, if the policy stinks, you’re stuck with it for a long time. As a practical matter, Congress is unlikely to review many of the bad policy provisions in this law for a years to come.

Now that the FAST Act has passed, the next major chance for federal reform will be 2020. The policy decisions we make today will affect the transportation options Americans will have for decades. We’ve waited too long for reform already – we can’t afford to wait five more years for real change. Now it’ll be up to the states to make the best of a bad federal law.

Where does this leave us?

Policy makers are touting the fact that they’ve finally passed a long-term law and are patting themselves on the back for a job well done. At the same time, many legislators have some issue with the law -- whether it’s how it’s funded, how the money is divided up, what programs are cut, etc. And for good reason. As much as our leaders want us to think this policy is reform minded (the House bill was named the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act, the Senate bill was the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy [DRIVE] Act) the FAST Act is squarely planted in the 20th century, not the 21st.

In other words, this law uses tomorrow’s money to pay for yesterday’s policies.

We object to this bill, and so should you.

1 U.S. PIRG, “The Innovative Transportation Index,” February 4, 2015.
2 U.S. PIRG, “Millennials in Motion,” October 14, 2014.
3 The Hill, “Poll: 70 percent of US residents support transit funding increase,” November 30, 2015.
4 American Society of Civil Engineers, “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Surface Transportation Infrastructure,” 2013.
5 Smart Growth America, “Repair Report 2014,” March 2014.
6 Reuters, “One in ten U.S. bridges in urgent need of repair: report,” April 24, 2014.
7 American Society of Civil Engineers, “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” 2013.
8 City Lab, “America's Infrastructure Crisis Is Really a Maintenance Crisis,” February 12, 2015.
9 Federal Highway Administration, “Eisenhower Interstate Highway System – Interstate Density Map,” Updated November 18, 2015.
10 Caiazzo, F., Ashok, A., Waitz, I.A., Yim, S.H.L., and Barrett, S.R.H. (2013, May 31). Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005. Atmospheric Environment Journal, 79, 198-208, 203. Retrieved from http://lae.mit.edu/wordpress2/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/US-air-pollution-paper.pdf
11 PBS, “The Highway Trust Fund keeps bridges from falling down, but will Congress reauthorize it?” October 27, 2015.
12 U.S. Congress, “Joint Explanatory Statement of the Committee of the Conference,” December 1, 2015.

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