Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Transport bill maps course for two years

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MAP-21, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, is the latest "ISTEA" transportation funding measure approved by Congress June 29, laying out $127 billion in federal ground transport funding for the next 27 months.

President Obama is expected to sign the measure, which is a smaller and shorter financial package than previous iterations. Predecessor measure SAFETEA-LU, for example, lasted four years and spent $244 billion on road and transit projects. SAFETEA-LU expired in September 2009; Congress has passed several extensions since that time prior to its agreement on MAP-21, which passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support.

MAP-21 will be funded by the existing 18.4 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and the 24.4 cents-a-gallon diesel tax, which remains the same as it has been since 1993. Another $19 billion will come from the U.S. Treasury, also identfied as the "general fund."

Other items remaining unchanged include the federal requirement for Positive Train Control (PTC) to be activated by the end of 2015 on all right-of-way carrying passenger rail traffic. As well, weight and length limits for trucks remains unchanged for "federal aid" highways, though a study examining increased weights and sizes is also funded. "Buy America" provisions for capital investment remain essentially unchanged.

Among significant changes, MAP-21 authorizes the Department of Transportation to create a national safety plan for all public transport modes, presumably following moves to tighten safety oversight by the Federal Transit Administration on public transit systems comparable to rail freight and Amtrak safety oversight by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Amtrak, wholly left out of consideration in early "ISTEA" iterations, is aided indirectly in that federal funds can continue to be used to fund Amtrak long-distance operations. In addition, a new federal grant program is enacted to improve or preserve Amtrak routes exceeding 750 miles. Amtrak also is eligible for other federal grants on corridor routes where money is designated to ease highway congestion.

Federal expenditures for bus transit and regional rail service increases beginning in October, but bus and bus facilities funding decreases. As for capital investment, roughly $3.8 billion is identified for Fixed Guideway Capital Investment Grants, available for both rail and bus (Bus Rapid Transit) projects. Grant reforms include streamlining the approval process and requiring FTA to expedite project reviews more quickly. "New Starts" federal funding contributions are limited to 50%.

A $17 billion federal loan program is extended for transit and rail freight companies.

MAP-21 does repeal the Clean Fuels Formula Program and the Transit in the Parks Program.

Previous bicycle and pedestrian programs are consolidated into a single program, with state governments able to control half the available funding—including targeting the money for roads instead of sidewalks or bicycle trails, if the states so choose.

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