© IStockphoto.com

Throughout the first half of this decade and essentially tracing back to 2005, state and county transportation departments have faced uncertain conditions when planning highway or bridge projects tied to the lack of a long-term national transportation spending act.

In early December 2015 both houses of Congress broke the pattern of uncertainty by passing the same version of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a five-year bill that authorizes more than $200 billion for highway spending and safety and another $70 billion for projects related to public transportation or the Amtrak passenger rail service.

The FAST bill passed by a joint conference committee of Congress was signed by President Obama on Dec. 4, shortly before the most recent in a series of “stop-gap” spending measures would have expired.

For highway project managers, engineers and contractors down through to the pavement recycling subcontractors and equipment providers who serve them, the passage of the five-year bill was greeted as an overdue measure to help make managing their businesses more predictable.

DOLLARS AND SENSE

As Congress spent the first half of the decade keeping highway repair and upgrade funding measures limited to one-year terms—often passed with little time to spare—contractors, equipment makers and the trade associations that represent them expressed their dissatisfaction.

In March of 2012, [government shutdown timeline], the U.S. Senate passed the two-year MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century) bill that kept the gasoline tax in place just 17 days before it would have expired. The gasoline tax has long been the primary funding mechanism for highway spending.

Dennis Slater, who was president of Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) at the time remarked, “There is no single piece of legislation pending before Congress that will do more to immediately create American jobs and sharpen our global competitiveness.”

MAP-21 kept the gasoline tax in place but fell well short of creating a multiyear set of guidelines for collecting or distributing funds to maintain or expand America’s road and bridge network.

Throughout 2012, equipment maker KPI-JCI/Astec Mobile Screens, a division of Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Astec Industries Inc., held a series of events called “The Road Connection” that KPI-JCI described as “a grassroots, nonpartisan campaign designed to raise awareness about the need for a multiyear, federal transportation bill.”

But a long-term highway bill was not passed in 2012 or in 2013, when instead a 16-day U.S. government shutdown brought a renewed sense of concern over whether America’s two political parties could work together even on a seemingly noncontroversial matter.

As Congress reconvened after its summer recess in fall 2015, an alliance of more than 80 trade associations and unions sent letters to Congress urging the House of Representatives to pass a long-term (six-year) reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program. The Senate had passed such a bill with bipartisan support in July 2015, but it awaited House approval.

Brian Usher, president of the Kansas City, Missouri-based American Public Works Association (APWA) said at the time, “The temporary program of extensions and recurring Highway Trust Fund revenue crises does not provide a path for future economic growth, jobs and increased competitiveness. Further, a multiyear, multimodal surface transportation authorization maintains a strong federal role and provides dedicated, reliable and equitable funding to both states and local governments for building, maintaining and operating state and local infrastructure systems.”

Among the other groups signing the letter were the AEM; the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA); the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC); the American Road & Transportation Builders Association; the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association; the Asphalt Recycling & Reclaiming Association; and the American Iron and Steel Institute.

COMPROMISES MADE

The FAST Act that ultimately passed both houses of Congress covers a five-year term instead of six, and at least one industry trade group, the AGC, has referred to it as a “compromise bill.”

AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr issued a statement in early December 2015 listing pros and cons of the FAST ACT, including what Congress has left undone.

“The release of the [Congressional conference] committee’s final bill brings us one step closer to having the kind of long-term measure that transportation officials rely on to plan and finance needed improvements to our aging highway and transit systems,” said Sandherr. “The slight boost to overall transportation funding included in this five-year measure will help cut traffic, improve transportation safety and keep our economy globally competitive. Likewise, the policy reforms that we backed and were included in the measure will help reduce the amount of time and money it takes to plan, approve and construct new transportation projects.”

Sandherr said the spending measure should be accompanied by a compatible funding measure. “We will continue to urge Congress and the administration to find the kind of long-term and sustainable funding mechanisms that the current measure lacks. Identifying a new way to pay for highway and transit upgrades is crucial if we want to avoid the temporary extensions and patchwork funding provisions that preceded this bill. Ultimately, we want to make sure that the sequel to this bill fully funds our highway and transit program for generations to come.”

Current Associated Equipment Distributors (AED) President Brian P. McGuire likewise made a reference to more work to be done. “Our work isn’t finished. AED will continue to press Congress to create new, sustainable revenue streams for the Highway Trust Fund to ensure the chaos surrounding the program in recent years is an historical aberration and not the new normal.”

The APWA’s Usher expressed gratitude that a longer-term bill of some kind had been passed. “APWA commends the Senate and House leaders who guided the timely passage of the FAST Act,” he remarked. As the ink dried on the FAST Act, a collection of interested parties, including business owners, trade associations, economists and state and regional planners began to calculate how it might affect their future prospects.

THE NEAR TERM

Although motorists don’t like to see additional orange cones and “construction ahead” road signs, the majority of parties interested in the FAST Act are hopeful that is precisely the near-term result.

APWA’s Usher said, “The FAST Act provides financial security for the programs that sustain our roads, bridges, transit and passenger rail system, which will work to keep the U.S. economy globally competitive,” he remarked.

AED’s McGuire, like other industry leaders, expressed his frustration at the long political road traveled. “After so many near misses and close calls, so many cans kicked down the road and so many cliffs narrowly averted, we finally have long-term, fully funded highway legislation.”

McGuire was optimistic about the effects of the FAST Act. “This is more than a philosophical victory. Equipment dealers, manufacturers and their customers can once again plan for the future. Over the next five years, the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal highway and transit investment guaranteed in the bill will stimulate more than $13 billion in equipment sales, rental and maintenance activity and support more than 4,000 dealership jobs each year,” he predicted.

Regionally, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said FAST will provide some $12 billion in funding to the Sunshine State, including money “that can be used for improvements on Interstate 95 and Interstate 75.” Alabamians may benefit via a beltline highway near Birmingham and a go-ahead for the I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge project (see sidebar “Bridging a funding gap.”)

Based on the FAST Act’s per-state funding formula, Illinois will receive about $7.5 billion for highway spending during the five-year period covered by FAST. Illinois Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson Guy Tridgell told the Decatur, Illinois-based Herald & Review, “This bill allows us to build some certainty into our long-range planning.” Tridgell added that the clarity provided by FAST will be reflected in the Illinois DOT’s next multiyear road plan, to be released in the spring of 2016.

In the western U.S., the Oregon DOT says it will receive more than $500 million per year thanks to the FAST Act. Among eight new “high priority corridors” identified by the FAST Act, two are in Oregon: I-205 and the Highway 99 Newburg-Dundee Bypass.

After 10 years of muddling through on highway funding, legislators in both political parties seem to have heard the message that their lack of cooperation on highway spending has been beneficial to no one.

The author is an editor with Construction & Demolition Recycling and can be reached at btaylor@gie.net.