Delving Into the Highway Bill: Transportation Policy

The 1,300 page, $305 billion highway bill that Congress passed last week contains dozens of provisions that reflect the country's transportation policy priorities over the next five years. Although these provisions generally will not directly impact NATSO members, they will shape the market and regulatory environments within which NATSO members operate.  

Below is a brief overview of some of these topics.
How Money is Allocated
The five-year bill increases the amount of money that Congress is authorized to spend on highways by 15 percent ($230 billion) and increases transit spending by 18 percent ($50 billion) over its duration. It also authorizes $10 billion for passenger rail and $5 billion for highway safety programs.  Importantly, although Congress will now have the legal authority to spend this money, the money remains subject to annual spending decisions by Congress rather than being paid for from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.  
Freight Shipment
The legislation puts a new focus on steering transportation aid to highways that are designated as "freight corridors."  The bill designates $4.5 billion for a new competitive grant program for nationally significant freight and highway projects and $6.3 billion for a national highway freight program that uses a formula to apportion money to states.
The bill directs states and metropolitan areas to analyze their freight movement and develop a "multimodal plan" to improve the efficiency of freight movement.  The bill has been criticized, however, for only providing funding to build highway-based solutions. This is potentially a positive development for businesses located along our nation's highways. Critics point out, however, that the legislation does not take a comprehensive, holistic view of freight movement in the United States, and thus will not generate the most cost-effective and efficient solutions to freight mobility.  The bill has also been criticized because the new formula program relies on current highway formulas that are unrelated to freight movement.
Finally, the bill requires the Department of Transportation to reconsider a rule requiring trains that haul crude oil and ethanol to be equipped with electronically controlled brakes that automatically stop rail cars at the same time rather than sequentially.  Freight railroads say the brakes are too expensive and that their safety benefits are unproven.  The legislation requires a study and real-world test of the brakes, after which DOT can decide whether the rule's costs are justified or whether it should be revised.
Relationships Between States and Federal Government
Local governments will receive slightly more money to invest in their priority projects.  Smaller localities and their representatives have criticized the bill for overlooking communities with less than 200,000 in population, since those communities do not have any control over how these funds are spent in their areas; the state will retain authority and can decide to spend locally-earmarked funds on other projects.  The bill also expands the types of projects eligible for Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), which provide federal credit assistance to surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.
The bill has been criticized for not including provisions to improve accountability and transparency for the current way by which public agencies select projects -- a process that the public feels is opaque, complicated, and political. Congress missed an opportunity, these critics say, to help restore confidence in the system. 
David Fialkov's photo

David Fialkov

David Fialkov is the Vice President of Government Relations, as well as the Legislative and Regulatory Counsel, at NATSO. In this capacity, Mr. Fialkov directs NATSO's legislative, regulatory, and legal strategy on a range of issues, including transportation, energy and fuels, labor, data security, and taxes. Mr. Fialkov also oversees NATSO's political engagement program, including individualized legal and political counsel to member companies. Prior to joining NATSO, Mr. Fialkov was the senior associate in the Government Affairs and Public Policy practice at the law firm of Steptoe and Johnson in Washington, D.C. At Steptoe, Mr. Fialkov advised clients on legislative, regulatory, and political issues, as well as legal concerns. His primary clients included trade associations representing the motor fuel wholesale and retail industries, including the National Association of Convenience Stores and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America. Mr. Fialkov's focus was not only on the motor fuels business, but also the litany of other issues that retailers confront, including labor matters, foodservice issues, healthcare and employment issues, tax matters and data security. Prior to joining Steptoe, Mr. Fialkov graduated with honors from George Washington University Law School. He received his B.S. Summa cum laude with highest honors from Clark University in Worcester, MA. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife Allison and daughter Lilah. More
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