By Ben Husch
In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that America’s infrastructure was close to failing, rating it a D+ on its annual American Infrastructure Report Card.
While some of our nation’s infrastructure that affects the movement of freight performed slightly better—bridges C+; ports C; rail C+—roads received a D rating, highlighting the significant investments needed. In response, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a five-year reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs signed into law in December 2015, included significant funding to modernize and upgrade infrastructure that is critical to the movement of freight.
This funding arrived in two new programs: the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects (NSFHP) and the National Highway Freight Program (NHFP). The NSFHP program is designed to provide financial assistance on a competitive basis, in the form of grants or credit assistance, to nationally and regionally significant freight and highway projects. The NHFP provides funds directly to states for similar purposes but is based on a pre-determined formula that delivers states additional certainty about the level of federal funds they will receive to help improve the movement of freight.
Late last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) made available $800 million in FY 2016 funding for the NSFHP, now renamed the Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of Natioanl Efficiencies (FASTLANE) program. As these funds are competitively awarded, one important aspect of the program is that a state may apply for an award on its own or with a group of other states. Local governments and metropolitan planning organizations are also eligible to apply for funding. Awards are to be directed toward projects of national and regional significance and 25 percent of all FASTLANE funds are reserved for rural areas. Additionally, DOT may make both large (greater than $25 million) and small (greater than $5 million) awards depending on the size of the overall project.
Following the FASTLANE announcement, on Feb 29, DOT released instructions for states to begin drawing down NHFP funds. Under NHFP, each state receives funds in proportion to the amount of funds it will receive compared to other states under all formula apportioned programs. For example, if a state receives 4 percent of federal-aid formula funding, the state will receive 4 percent of the NHFP funding. However, DOT also noted that beginning two years after the date of enactment of the FAST Act, a state may not obligate NHFP funds unless the state has developed a freight plan which demonstrates how the funds will be used and matched, and include a fiscally constrained list of projects prioritized for investment.
With a new ASCE report card set for 2017, one can only hope that that these investments will show that the country is on a steady path to the honor roll.
Ben Husch is the committee director, Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee in the Washington, D.C., office.