December 9, 2015

What’s That Big and FAST Thing?

Becky Weber

Congress just completed a big thing. A very big thing. A thing that hasn’t been done in over a decade. A $305 billion dollar thing. A thing nobody thought they would get over the finish line. That thing is a five-year fully funded surface transportation bill to fund the nation’s highways, transit systems and passenger rail programs colloquially referred to as “the highway bill.” Congress named it the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, so we’re calling it a Big and FAST Thing. We should care about it for the critical issue it addresses, infrastructure needs, but also because it is an island of hope for the Congress’ ability to address other pressing big things.

Infrastructure has generally always been popular and not partisan. In transportation circles, a common saying is, “There’s no such thing as a Republican road or a Democratic bridge.” For over 50 years, highway bills were among the biggest domestic bills outside of entitlements Congress considered, and long term bills generally passed one after another without interruptions.

However, in the last decade, against a backdrop of severe and systemic financing issues facing surface transportation programs; political unwillingness to raise new revenue; a brand new Speaker of the House; a highly acrimonious and dysfunctional Congressional environment; and the liveliest Presidential election contest in memory, it is nothing short of miraculous that this bill came together at all. The Highway Trust Fund, funded primarily by federal fuel taxes, has been in the red and has caused the Congressional fits and starts of an unprecedented 28 short term extensions of various length, as well as bailouts from the General Treasury over the last 12 years, just to keep the fund in the black with programs flat funded. These short term extensions created tremendous planning uncertainty and project interruptions for States and localities over the last decade, negatively impacting the progress of infrastructure improvements nationwide.

The big and FAST Thing gives States and localities much needed certainty on the Federal piece of their funding, representing about 40% of total surface transportation spending nationwide, for five years. The big and FAST Thing also manages to slightly increase those funding levels. The highway program is increased by about 5% in the first year and 2% in each of the remaining four years. The transit program is increased by about 10% in the first year and then increases by inflation in the out years. It’s a far cry from what’s needed, but in these precarious times, it’s a victory.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect, and to be fair, it has its detractors. Congress ultimately cobbled together a financing package that could pass both the House and Senate and be signed off on by the President. The bill augments Highway Trust Fund dollars with about $72 billion in additional funding from various sources from the General Treasury. While some of those offsets were opposed by some Members, the special sauce was enough to get the bill over the finish line with very strong votes, 359-65 in the House, 83-16 in the Senate, and gain the President’s signature last Friday. The big and FAST Thing does not resolve the long-term financing problems of these programs. That is an important item still on Congress’ To Do list. But it’s a herculean effort worthy of note, and shows with strong leadership and political will, Congress can address more Big Things.