Legislators are hoping to make significant progress on the FAST Act (Transportation) re-authorization before the congressional recess in August, but it is unclear whether that progress will result in a bill markup by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works or move closer to a floor vote.
On April 11, Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced the Addressing Underdeveloped and Tribally Operated Streets (AUTOS) Act. The Act, S.1211, aims to improve federal funding procedures for road safety and repairs in Indian Country. Joining Sen. Hoeven, the bill’s cosponsors are Sens. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND). Senator. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that Senator Hoeven chairs.
Tribal transportation authorities currently receive a majority of funding under the Tribal Transportation Program (TTP), which is jointly managed by the BIA and Federal Highway Administration. TTP initially received $465M in fiscal year 2016 under the FAST Act, the current legislation for transportation funding. With the FAST Act set to authorize $505M for the next fiscal year and expire in September 2020, the AUTOS Act’s sponsors see an opportunity to streamline the federal funding process and to address the increasing maintenance backlog for roads, bridges, and safety features on tribal lands.
The Act’s main impact for tribal transportation budgets is the additional $16M in funding that it would add to any amount included in a FAST Act reauthorization for fiscal year 2021. This figure would increase by $2M each year with a total of $24M for the 2025 fiscal year. The BIA Road Maintenance Program would receive separate dedicated funding of $46M for the 2021 fiscal year and end with $54M for fiscal year 2025.
The AUTOS Act would allow the Secretary of Interior to create categorical exclusions from environmental review similar to those already established by the Department of Transportation. For safety projects that still require review, the Secretary or other supervising federal official will have to use the shortest timeline possible to report back to the Indian tribe proposing the project. Under the proposed bill, Tribes also can enter into agreements to conduct environmental reviews for TTP funded projects.
The AUTOS Act would also start a federal initiative to standardize crash reports for tribal road accidents and study road maintenance best practices. Read AUTOS Act
After contentious negotiations the Congress passed a 5 year fully funded Transportation Bill, boosting spending on roads and transit systems by billions each year. The “FAST ACT” is an over $305 billion bill. It increases spending on highways by 2.1 $billion the first year above current levels. By the final year 2020 the bump is $6.1 billion above the $50 billion in recent years.
The FAST ACT provides a significant percentage increase in monies on highway funding. And it has protected funding for Transit Systems, that some wanted out from the bill, and also gives increases for pedestrian and bicycle programs and $200 million for rail safety.
The Senate and the House initially had different funding provisions. The Conference Committee settled primarily on House plan to use money that The Federal Reserve Bank uses as a cushion against losses and a Senate proposal to reduce the amount of interest the Federal Reserve pays to Banks.
This bill ended the era of short term extensions that has been the order of the day for the last 10 years. The bill triples the amount the National Highway Safety Administration can impose in civil fines, and continues the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance Act program. And, it re-authorized the Export Import Bank that allowed loans to foreign companies purchasing US goods.
While this Bill is a landmark moment for Congress that is considered a do nothing body, it still failed once again to find a renewable source of cash for the nation’s transportation needs. Because the need to get from place to place in our country stands alone to the degree it touches everyone young and old – it is a goal that transcends political parties. Thus the compromise on the Bill by the Conference Committee was touted as a bi-partisan success. But the failure to fund a long-term way to pay for transportation reveals the party politics differences.
Dividing Lines: The issues that divided the parties;
- Should money be found through user taxes like the gas tax or by taxing the number of miles driven?
- Can long term funding be found by bringing home billions of dollars in taxable income that corporations have stashed off shore?
- Should there be a turn away from a transportation only funding source such as a gas tax and instead toward using income and other taxes?
- Should money to pay for transit systems come from revenue collected mostly from drivers who pay taxes? Should tax collected from the same fee user fees be spent on bike and pedestrian needs?
These are all proven to be thorny political issues. A key reason that the House opted not to raise the gas tax even though a gas tax had broad support from the Chamber of Commerce, Automobile Association, Labor Unions and Trucking was that many House members pledged to NEVER raise taxes on anything. And another key belief held by the far right wing or Tea Party Coalition was that the Federal Government should be less involved in Transportation. Instead they want the issue left to the states and give localities the right to prioritize Transit programs or pedestrian projects. Some States believe that would eliminate some costs imposed by Federal regulations and then the States would be free to spend their own money on their own priorities.
Dual Taxation in Indian Country:
This debate over the power of States or the Federal Government to control funding for Transportation echo’s the debate today in Indian Country over Dual Taxation. Right now many of us in Washington are looking at how to use the revision of the Indian Trader Regulations to stop dual Taxation of Tribal Governments. State governments provide few services on Indian Reservations, but still impose taxes on severance of nature resources, retail sales, and increasingly on property such as wind generation facilities. Tribal governments are then forces to collect state taxes and if they impose a tribal government tax, then the resulting dual taxation drives business away. The dilemma means Tribes collect no taxes and suffer inadequate roads, schools, police, courts and health care. We raise the Dual Taxation issue that is currently being debated in Indian Country as a possible source of revenue for Tribal roads and other infrastructure needs, to highlight, that now is the time to pay attention to the how the overall funding for transportation is resolved in Congress. This may be the right political time, for Tribes to seek a solution to prevent dual taxation by States, and provide Tribes more tax jurisdiction to supplement their own transportation funding needs. The new Transportation bill includes provisions to promote development of alternatives to the 18.4 cent gas tax, which as you know is not enough to pay for National or Tribal Transportation costs.
It was reported that Senator Boxer (D-CA) and Senator Inhofe (R-OK) worked closely to get the job done on the Transportation bill. Boxer said it was such a “bruising process” it was motivating to finding a permanent solution. Because Transportation is such a high priority for both Parties she believes they will “figure it out”.
The bottom-line the FAST ACT moved fast out of the Senate. In one day the bill got out of the House and Senate with a vote of 83 to 16 in the Senate and 359 to 65 in the House. In the House Chairman Shuster and Ranking member DeFazio worked through hundreds of amendments, requiring staff to work on the bill through Thanksgiving weekend. The FAST ACT was a breakthrough in partisan politics and deadlock. But much still needs to be done for adequate long term funding for Transportation.
FAST ACT PROVISIONS THAT INCREASED FUNDING OR IMPACTED TRIBAL TRANSPORTATION
- Tribal Transportation Program funding is increased each year.
- $465 million in FY 2016 and $10 million per year increases to $505 million in FY 2020 (Sec. 1101(a)(3).
- The USDOT tribal self-governance program is a new provision (Sec. 1121), there will be a negotiated rule-making for this new program.
- The Tribal Transit program is increased from $30 million to $35 million per year (with $30 million for the formula component of the Tribal Transit Program and $5 million for the discretionary competitive transit grant program under section 5311(c)(1) of title 49 (Sec. 3007(a)(1)(A) and (B) and 3016).
- A new $100 million per year grant program is established for “nationally significant” Federal Lands and tribal transportation projects (Sec. 1123).
- The Project Management and Oversight (PM&O) “takedown” for the BIA and FHWA is reduced from 6% to 5% (Sec. 1118).
- The Tribal Transportation Bridge Program takedown is increased from 2% to 3% (Sec. 1118).
- Provides tribal data collection reporting regarding the expenditure of Tribal Transportation Program funds under Section 202 of title 23 to the Secretary of the Interior (Sec. 1117(a)).
- Directs the Secretary of the Department of Transportation to report to Congress, after consulting with the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of DHHS, the Attorney General and Indian tribes, describing the quality of transportation safety data collected by States, counties, and tribes for transportation safety systems to improve the collection and sharing of data regarding crashes on Indian reservations (Sec. 1117(b)).
- Requires the Secretary of Transportation, after consultation with the Secretary of the Interior, the AG, States and Indian tribes, to provide a report to Congress within two years of enactment of the FAST Act that identifies and evaluates options to improve safety on public roads on Indian reservations (Sec. 1117(c)).