By Mark Vieth, Senior Vice President
Yesterday, the House of Representatives did something they haven’t accomplished in more than ten years – the adoption of a six-year surface transportation authorization bill. Breaking with the previous practice of passing only two-year authorization bills and multiple extensions, the House approved the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 (STRR). This bill authorizes $325 billion for federal-aid highway and transit programs for six years. While still well short of the investment needed to adequately maintain and improve our nation’s surface transportation system, the bill is an important bipartisan accomplishment for the House
Enactment of a multi-year surface transportation is essential to the American economy. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, if present trends continue, our deteriorating infrastructure will annually cost our economy $210 billion by 2020, and rise $520 billion annually by 2040!
Few Americans know that imbedded within this large spending bill is a small but vital research and innovation component that helps to advance our knowledge of what makes our highways and transit systems safer and more efficient. STRR provides $414.5 million for research and innovation in fiscal year 2016, rising to $420 million annually by fiscal year 2019.
The competitive University Transportation Center (UTC) program, popular among many Members of Congress, is fully funded by STRR through the Highway Trust Fund. The program is funded at $72.5 million in fiscal year 2016, rising to $75 million in fiscal year 2017 and $77.5 million in fiscal year 2019. The Senate-approved version of the bill, known as the “DRIVE” Act, flat-funded the program at $72.5 million from fiscal years 2016-2021.
The bill also creates a new $75 million “Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment” program to provide competitive grants for development of model deployment sites for large scale installation and operation of advanced transportation technologies to improve safety, efficiency, system performance, and infrastructure return on investment.
STRR still has a long way to go before it can reach its final destination. It must be conferenced with the Senate-approved DRIVE Act. With few remaining days on the legislative calendar, and attention focused on the fiscal year 2016 appropriations, it may be a tall order to conference and approve a reauthorization bill before the end of the year. However, many predicted that Congress would not even get this far in the process, and instead would pass another long-term extension. Thankfully, there is a bipartisan will to enact this legislation to at least begin paying attention to our long-neglected roads, bridges and transit systems.