A Look at the 2015 FAST Act

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Cities, Towns, Tolls…and Paperwork?

When was the last time you hit a pothole? Drove over a stretch of cracked and crumbling pavement? Had a bridge collapse right under your tires?

Maybe those first two have happened in the recent past. And that last one? We hope it never has and never will happen to any of us. But there’s something all these things have in common.

They are all potential targets of the five-year, $305-billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act signed into law on December 4th. This bill is described in a piece offered by AJOT, the American Journal of Transportation, as a bipartisan, long-term transportation funding bill that will provide much-needed investments in our nation’s roads.

Scott Michael, president and CEO of the American Moving & Storage Association, summarizes the bill this way:

“Our bridges and highways urgently need a serious upgrade that will help strengthen America’s economy. This bill makes sure that both moving company drivers and everyday Americans can have access to a more modern transportation system.”

This all sounds well and good. But as we all know, federal money comes with federal rules. And Rule One is: not everybody wins.

Where are all the dollars being driven?

Eric Jaffe at Citylab points out one interesting aspect of the bill: “In the past, metro area planners had to follow the design standards used by state planners…Moving forward, (city) planners will be able to use a street manual that differs from the state’s official road design publication.”

In other words, local officials will have a freer hand in deciding how best to serve their own areas, right?

Not so fast, small-town transportation industry guy.

As Transportation 4 America puts it: “Though (FAST) does slightly increase funding directly to metropolitan areas, it failed to give smaller communities any more control over federal funding.” Why? Because this increase in funding and autonomous spending only applies to metropolitan areas with a population over 200,000.

The little guys lose again.

But wait! There’s another way to get a sliver of this $305 billion dollar pie.

A second change in how transportation funding will be allocated involves a federal road works financing program called TIFIA. In the past, qualifying for a low-interest loan through this program required a minimum project cost of $50 million. “The FAST act reduces that threshold to $10 million,” Jaffe tells us, “bringing projects from smaller cities into play.”

Sounds like some of that money will make it out to some of our suburban neighborhoods after all. But on their blog T4A reminds us that, for those of us in smaller municipalities, the FAST Act “(leaves) decisions about which projects to build in the hands of the state DOT, which often ignores local wishes.” Eric Jaffe adds the idea that since the money allocated to TIFIA has been cut from $1 billion down to about one-fourth that amount, FAST “is likely to remain biased toward larger metros that can get applications in more quickly” to grab more of that money.

Picture these smaller towns fighting for the funding they need in the face of the larger cities’ power and pull. It’s like a fiscal David and Goliath story. (Maybe we could call it Dodge and Gotham?)

But who can say with any certainty how this new bill will play out in real life? The safe money says that those of us in our country’s larger cities will have the pleasure of navigating a few more road construction sites in the next few years. The rest of us will have to be content with the usual traffic on the same old roads we’re used to.

Less Free-dom on the Highway?

The good folks at Future Structure point out one part of the FAST Act that has the potential to affect everyone – on the highways in three states anyway. All you guys and girls in Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia may not be too excited to hear that FAST contains allowances for these three states to institute new tolls on existing highways. You can, however, take heart in Future Structure’s assertion that none of these states have any plans to do this.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, that opens up the rest of us to the possibility of new tollways since, if these three states don’t use their authority to establish new tolls, that authority could be given to another state.

So keep some spare change handy, wherever you are.

As far as our industry is concerned

There are both pros (huge funding for our nation’s highways) and cons (little if any chance of seeing any of that $305 billion go to the local roads we use every day) to the FAST Act. But somewhere in the middle of this 1300-page bill we see something intriguing.

Section 5503(c)(1)(a) puts forth the recommendation of “condensing publication ESA 03005 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (aka the ‘Rights & Responsibilities’ pamphlet we give to our customers) into a format that is more easily used by consumers.” The working group charged with developing such recommendations is to be comprised of, in part, “representatives of the household goods moving industry”.

Anyone out there want to apply?

Meanwhile, Section 5503(c)(1)(c) sets forth the idea of “reducing and simplifying the paperwork required of motor carriers and shippers in interstate transportation.”

While the federal government is not exactly known for its operational simplicity we will keep our hopes up and look forward to some positive developments on this. If we don’t see smoother roads in town maybe we’ll at least see a smoother, easier ride down the paperwork trail.

Summing Up

However this $305 billion is spent, it’s going to continue to be business as usual for us. That means watching for potholes, taking it easy over those stretches of sketchy pavement and just watching out for each other out there.

All while hoping no bridges fall out from under us.

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