After a slow start, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is stepping up its work in distributing funding from the $305-billion, five-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act to state and local agencies. Deadlines are looming for important FAST Act grant programs.
The measure, signed on Dec. 4, is the first five-year transportation bill enacted since 2005. Carlos Monje Jr., DOT acting undersecretary for policy, on April 5 told reporters, “After 10 years of uncertainty on the funding front … we’ve been moving to get the money out as quickly as we can.” He says the department is working on FAST Act regulations and other mandates. “We’ve been hitting the marks,” Monje says.
DOT’s first major FAST Act action came on Jan. 8, when it apportioned to states about $40 billion in fiscal 2016 highway funding, or 92% of the law’s highway total for the year.
The department also has issued funding availability notices for several, FAST Act-launched competitive grant programs. The largest is $4.5 billion over five years for “nationally significant freight and highway projects.” DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx says the program, which the department calls FASTLANE, “hits at an area that we need to focus on as a country, which is moving goods [and] doing it as expeditiously as possible.”
Congress directed that at least $4 billion of the new program’s money go to highway projects. Foxx says, “My guess is that [the remaining] $500 million isn’t going to take us very far on other modes of transportation,” such as ports, rail and inland waterways. “But it’s better to have a program than not have it,” he adds.
Applications from states, localities and other entities for FASTLANE’s $800- million 2016 allotment were due by April 14, only about six weeks after DOT issued its funding availability notice. Cathy Connor, WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president, says, “That is the one problem that I am hearing from clients: The deadlines are really tight.”
Jim Tymon, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials chief operating officer, says, “There’s a lot of concern that it’s tough for states to turn [applications] around that quickly.” But Tymon expects many to apply. “They see this as an opportunity to get additional federal funding for projects that will clearly have impact on that particular state’s ability to move freight, which has an impact on the economic well-being of not only that state but the rest of the country,” he says.
AASHTO wasn’t happy with DOT’s early FAST Act follow-up. The group’s president, Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino III, on Feb. 12 wrote Foxx: “More than two months have now passed since President Obama signed the FAST Act, and we have yet to see substantial progress toward implementing this legislation.” But since then, Tymon has seen improvement. “Certainly a slow start,” he says, “but it seems like things are moving.”
Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America’s highway and transportation division, says his group also is pleased with DOT’s pace. “They have moved expeditiously,” he says.
Another FAST Act grant program likely to draw states’ interest is aimed at evaluating “user-based alternative revenue mechanisms” for surface transportation. The program springs from the Highway Trust Fund’s inability to cover highway and transit authorizations completely.
Jack Basso, principal of Peter J. Basso and Associates, Rockville, Md., says, “At least a half-dozen” states are weighing applying by the May 20 deadline for the $15 million available in 2016. DOT can award another $20 million in each of the next four years and fund at least two plans. Basso, who also chairs a mileage-based user-fee group, says that, by 2020, when the FAST Act expires, “We have got to come out with something to fix the revenue problem.”