Posted by nativelawpolicy
Momentum is building in Washington towards the important Transportation reauthorization bill to replace the current bill set to expire in November. Last week, President Obama urged Congress to pass a four-year $302 billion package, instead of the usual two-year bill for surface transportation. President Obama also announced $600 million dollars in a new round of competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, that will select projects that better connect communities to jobs, training and economic opportunity, including improving access to opportunity in rural communities. In addition, this 2014 round of TIGER grants can allocate up to $35 million in planning grants to facilitate development of innovative or regional transportation solutions. The application period for this round of TIGER grants is fast approaching, with submissions due by April 28, 2014, and Department of Transportation (DOT) Webinars on preparing applications starting March 12, 2014.
In the weeks leading up to President Obama’s transportation announcements, several other events brought together key players in the transportation reauthorization process and reinforced the broad consensus that the nations’ economic health will depend upon Congress finding common ground to pass a comprehensive bill well in advance of the November 1st deadline. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) held a hearing that drew testimony from the largest national trade associations, who all emphasized the critical need for federal funding for the nation’s highways and transportation systems upon which interstate commerce relies. A new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report moved up to this summer its estimate of when the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) will become insolvent, preventing investments in long-term transportation projects and hampering state and local governments in continuing to fund current projects. The urgency of the need to address sustainable long-term transportation investment was further reinforced by a DOT Conditions and Performance report released February 28, 2014. EPW Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) wants a transportation reauthorization bill drafted by April so it can be passed before the Congressional August recess leading into the mid-term election cycle.
Certain to be a central issue in the transportation debate and negotiations is how to shore up the HTF, which plays an important role in the funding process. At issue will be whether to increase, and by how much, the federal fuels and diesel per gallon taxes. Potentially further complicating the debate is the recent tax reform proposal put forth by Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp (R-MI), which would dedicate additional funding streams to the HTF to supplement the user fee taxes currently in place. Although, Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has noted the value for long-term transportation planning of such an increase in dedicated funding for the HTF and reiterated his commitment to Congressional action on a transportation bill this year, the broader and controversial implications of Rep. Camp’s tax reform proposal may be divisive.
Recognizing the importance of a unified voice in the fast moving reauthorization process, a Tribal Transportation Reauthorization Unity Summit was held last week in Denver, CO to develop consensus priorities and strategies for Indian Country to advance during the reauthorization process. Specific recommendations include increasing funding for the Tribal Transportation Program up to $1.05 billion by 2020 and increasing both the discretionary and formula funding for the Tribal Transit Programs, while ensuring existing Tribal Transit Programs formula funding is not reduced. The Unity Summit priorities also identify restoring Highway Trust Fund allocation for the Tribal High Priority Projects Program, establishing a Tribal Asset Management Program to maintain existing transportation facilities, separate funding for the TTP Tribal Bridge Program, and establishing a $75,000 minimum TTP allocation for all tribes.
The Resolution passed during the Unity Conference highlighted the disparity that despite the fact that 3% of national infrastructure roads are within Indian Country, only 1% of federal transportation dollars are allocated for Indian Country. To address this disparity, other consensus objectives from the Unity Conference include establishing set aside funding formulas for highway safety programs aimed to decrease high rates of fatalities and injuries on tribal transportation systems, as well as ensuring that tribes are eligible for all other streams of transportation funding and enhancing tribal self-governance as to transportation infrastructure. Conference attendees also put forth an innovative proposal to establish a Tribal Infrastructure Bank with guaranteed minimum capitalization to provide low interest loans for tribal transportation projects.