Senate Commerce Committee’s Bipartisan $78B Surface Transportation Bill Advances

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has passed its five-year surface transportation bill authorizing $78 billion for rail, freight, safety and research programs; it is a bipartisan measure supported by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA).

Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021 on June 10. The legislation includes $36 billion for rail, $28 billion for multi-modal freight investments, $13 billion for safety, and $1 billion for new and existing research and development programs. It also reauthorizes and makes reforms to U.S. Department of Transportation agencies such as the Office of the Secretary (OST); Federal Railroad Administration (FRA); Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA); National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) Hazardous Materials Programs.

The bill moved out of mark-up on June 16, following a 25-3 Committee vote. Now, as part of broader legislation, it advances to the full Senate with the $303.5 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021, a bipartisan investment in highways, roads and bridges that the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) unanimously approved in May. The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee is responsible for proposing transit legislation.

The deadline for surface transportation reauthorization is looming, as Congress’ extension of the FAST Act expires on Sept. 30. If no bill is passed and signed by President Joe Biden by the deadline, a continuing resolution will be needed to extend the current legislation. It could be a year or longer before a new bill is enacted, if history is any indication.

In an opening statement before the mark-up, Sen. Cantwell addressed the priorities of the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021, and thanked her colleagues for their work, saying, in part:

“Prior to the pandemic we had already seen about a 23% increase in freight shipments, and we know that between now and 2035 we’re expected to see another 40% increase in freight products,” she reported. “[I]f the U.S. competitiveness depends on getting our products to those markets cost effectively, we need an infrastructure that can help us do that.

“So included in this bill is a $20 billion freight program to support multimodal and freight infrastructure. The Department of Transportation INFRA program, which funds freight and freight-related project has been oversubscribed for years, averaging $7 billion a year in applications for less than $1 billion available. So our bill would double that funding for INFRA over the next five years and try to address that backlog. The bill also creates a new program to fund bigger-dollar projects for things of national significance. I’m sure all my colleagues could tell stories of projects in their state that basically just dwarf the state transportation budget, and thereby never get funded. So by creating this program we’re hoping to help those projects get moving and get repaired.

Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)

“The bill also authorizes for the first time in the U.S. DOT’s BUILD, RAISE, TIGER grant program—somebody explained to me now why every year somebody changes the name of these programs—but nonetheless, we are increasing the funding and authorizing it. I’d like to thank Senator Blunt for working with me to include a $500 million grant program to improve congestion and safety at rail crossings. I’d also like to thank Senator Thune for his advocacy to enhance railroad rehabilitation and improvement financing program to make it more attractive to potential borrowers.

“And obviously, another cornerstone of the legislation is the investment in Amtrak, providing $25 billion for Amtrak and states to repair and expand our rail system. We have many passenger rail advocates on this committee, but not more fierce than Senator Wicker in restoring the Gulf Coast service, and this provides the funding that will make that a reality. It also provides opportunities for unserved communities to get access to rail, and continue to connect communities throughout the United States.

“Senators Blumenthal, Markey, Tester, Moran and Peters deserve many kudos for fighting for increased Amtrak funding to the Northeast Corridor, and to help create new services between city pairs, and helping to protect Amtrak’s long-distance service. I want to thank Senator Duckworth for her work to ensure Amtrak stations comply with Americans with Disability Act and to advocate for a voice on the Amtrak board and share the perspective of many people with disabilities. Our legislation also makes big investments, about $13 billion, to make our cars, trucks and railroads safer and requires concrete steps to reduce roadway crashes and fatalities.”

Commerce Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

Following the bill’s passage out of Committee, Ranking Member Wicker said: “This bill continues the Commerce Committee’s strong history of working across the aisle to find solutions that benefit all Americans. The legislation will grow the economy by increasing authorized funding and making improvements to our rail, freight, research and safety programs. I thank Senator Cantwell for her dedication to these issues, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass a comprehensive infrastructure package through the Senate.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, also expressed her support.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va)

“As Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and having recently passed legislation [Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021] unanimously to invest in our roads, bridges, and highways, it’s great to see momentum continuing on this critical issue,” Sen. Capito said. “The legislation passed today [June 16] would increase funding levels for the safety programs that are consistent with the increased funding levels that our surface transportation legislation in the EPW Committee provided for roads and bridges. Finally, I want to thank the committee for working with me to include language that would increase investments to address substance-impaired driving, drunk driving, and innovative transportation technologies.”

The transportation items to which Capito referred are the codification of the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council and the promulgation of safety regulations for high speed rail.

The AAR and ASLRRA also expressed their continued support in statements released on June 16.

AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies

“Railroads applaud the committee for its leadership and bipartisan commitment to strengthening our nation’s infrastructure,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said. “By staying focused on vital funding needs and safety, the committee was able to build consensus on a package that makes a solid down payment on our future surface transportation needs. AAR and our member railroads thank the committee for its tireless work and stand ready to help push the bill across the finish line.”

“ASLRRA commends the strongly bi-partisan approval of the Surface Transportation Investment Act out of the Senate Commerce Committee this afternoon,” ASLRRA President Chuck Baker said.

ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

“This action shows that our elected officials can work together to bring meaningful legislation forward—legislation that will support the continued strength of the U.S. freight transportation network, and in particular the growth of small business freight railroads, allowing us to serve America’s freight shippers, support the communities we operate in throughout America, invest in safety and service improvements, and contribute to continued reduction of the environmental impact of freight transportation. Specifically, for short line railroads this bill provides excellent competitive funding opportunities and avoids unnecessarily burdensome regulations that would limit our ability to help grow the economy and protect the environment in every part of America. We look forward to further engagement with both the Senate and the House as they work to advance a bill that can get to the President’s desk.”

The Democrat-led House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on June 10 approved in a party-line vote (38-26) the INVEST in America Act, which was introduced June 4 by Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Chair of the T&I Committee; Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Chair of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit; and Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-N.J.), Chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. It now moves to the full House of Representatives.

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