Underfunded infrastructure is U.S. mayors’ “most pressing problem,” according to a new survey. But mayors will be getting some significant help from the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act to narrow the funding gap.
Nearly half the officials who responded to the 2015 Menino Survey of Mayors, released on Jan. 20, cited infrastructure as their biggest challenge over the next five years or more—for issues that are primarily state or federal responsibilities. No other topic got more than 20% of the responses to the survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Boston University Initiative on Cities.
The long-delayed FAST Act, signed on Dec. 4, authorizes $305 billion for highway, transit and rail programs over five years. The new law boosts funding from 2015 levels, and its multiyear authorizations should give cities, states and construction firms more assurance to carry out long-term projects.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Jan. 21 drew applause from attendees at the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting when he said, “Lo and behold, we’ve got a five-year transportation bill.” Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., added, “Now we have to take the plans that we have and actually get them done. And I would urge you not to waste any time.”
Foxx alerted mayors that DOT will issue a funding-availability notice in the first quarter of 2016 for a major FAST Act initiative, a $4.5-billion, five-year competitive grant program for “nationally significant freight and highway projects.” Cities are among those eligible to apply for the grants.
Mayors also were happy that transit did so well in the FAST Act. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges (D) noted that transit funding rises 10% in the statute’s first year, fiscal 2016, and its percentage gains in the law’s last four years are higher than highways’ increases.
Cities scored another FAST Act victory in a provision that raises localities’ 50% share of federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds by one percentage point a year, topping out at 55% in 2020. Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) said, “It’s a step in the right direction, and we need more.” The mayors’ conference says the law will provide localities almost $3.4 billion in added STP funds over five years.
Beyond the FAST Act, Foxx said that, later this year, DOT will seek applications for a new, $500-million round of its hotly competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants, funded in the 2016 omnibus appropriations law.
Initial applications are due on Feb. 4 for DOT’s “Smart City Challenge,” which seeks to encourage cities to develop plans “for integrating tech-savvy, forward- looking transportation networks,” Foxx said. The winner would get up to $40 million from DOT and $10 million from Seattle investment firm Vulcan Inc.