States wary of possible changes to highway funding

Broad scope of House Democrats’ infrastructure blueprint could hurt chances of passage

The House Democrats‘ infrastructure plan includes the reauthorization of federal highways and transit programs ( David McNew/Getty Images file photo) (CQ Roll Call)
The House Democrats‘ infrastructure plan includes the reauthorization of federal highways and transit programs ( David McNew/Getty Images file photo) (CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 7, 2020 at 6:30am

State transportation leaders applauded House Democrats for releasing principles of a broad infrastructure package last week, but were concerned about potential changes to the formula programs that determine funding levels for each state.

Although there is some concern that the broad scope of the Democrats’ $760 billion legislative “framework” could hurt chances of passage, state leaders also applauded the ambition. In addition to reauthorizing federal highways and transit programs, the plan would also change how harbors and airports are funded, boost spending on broadband access and charging stations for electric vehicles, and seek to make all forms of transportation carbon-neutral.

The larger concern is over tweaks to formulas states say work fairly well. The Democrats’ plan — released last week by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts — includes a section saying they would amend “core highway formula programs to prioritize investments and improve program implementation.”

The changes would incentivize maintenance over new construction and reward states that build in climate change resiliency, reduce pollution and offer other “performance-based incentives.”

Most state officials would rather see fewer changes to how the programs work and more money poured in. The Democratic proposal, which calls for $329 billion over five years for highways, provides “a scale where we can make some progress,” said Patrick McKenna, the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

But the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s $287 billion bill, which the committee passed in July, more closely reflects AASHTO’s policy goals, McKenna said.

“The House is looking at a much more drastic revision of the surface transportation program,” said Jim Tymon, AASHTO’s executive director. “We think surface transportation programs are working well. So we’re holding our breath and waiting to see what this drastic revision looks like.”

If formula programs are to be tweaked, they should provide more flexibility to states while setting a clear standard, Utah Department of Transportation Director Carlos Braceras said. The federal government often has goals in mind and tries to tailor programs to reach those goals, but doesn’t often articulate what its preferred outcomes would look like, he said.

The most important action Congress could take to improve state transportation systems is to pass a surface transportation authorization before the current law expires at the end of September. On that front, the House blueprint, combined with the Senate EPW bill, puts Congress on schedule, state leaders say.

“The most important thing I have to say is ‘Thank you’ to the House for stepping up and starting the conversation from the House side,” Braceras said. “Now we can have a dialogue about where this goes.”

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Scope

The House Democratic bill more closely resembles a long-promised package of infrastructure bills than a single surface transportation reauthorization, itself a heavy lift.

It’s too early to say how the larger scope will affect the probability of passage.

“It could work both ways,” AASHTO’s Tymon said. “Either you could go with a larger package and able to build kind of a bigger tent … or the tent could be so big that it’s hard to get some of the core pieces like surface transportation reauthorization through because maybe there are some more controversial items that are attached to it. I think it’s hard for us to say at this point.”

Consensus on several items could be within reach if Democrats and Republicans commit to working together, Tymon added. The Senate bill also includes a climate title and funding for charging stations, for example.

There’s evidence the broader approach could generate more enthusiasm in some corners.

Casey Katims, director of federal and inter-state affairs for Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, an advocate of aggressive climate action, praised the House Democrats’ ambition.

“Washington state sees it as a really needed investment in a 21st Century infrastructure system that recognizes that moving people around demands a lot more than just highways,” he said.

Katims added that Congress should work to address all infrastructure needs, regardless of whether it would be more difficult to pass a bill that boosts electrification of the transportation sector and addresses climate change resiliency.

“We’d be fooling ourselves to say that it’s not going to be challenging to get a broader package through Congress,” he said. “But the imperative is there.”

Another aspect of the Democratic plan that could see opposition from states is its proposal to give more control to local governments. Such a measure could reduce states’ power to direct federal funds.

McKenna said he understood why certain areas in different states believe current funding allocations don’t address their needs. But he said the problem is too little funding, not how it’s allocated.

“There’s some concern about that aspect because I think it’s trying to fix the wrong problem,” he said.