The U.S. Senate late Thursday passed a five-year, $305 billion surface transportation funding bill intended to improve surface transportation infrastructure and make several broad changes to transportation policy, as well as reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank and allowing for private tax enforcement.
Called the “The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation”, or “FAST, Act”, the legislation passed in a bipartisan 83-16 vote, after passing the House of Representatives earlier in the day, 359-65, and will now go to President Barack Obama to be signed into law. The bill authorizes and funds federal highway and other surface transportation programs through fiscal 2020, helping to provide both certainty and flexibility for state and local governments who rely on federal highway funding, while also working to streamline project approval processes and reform transportation programs, according to legislative statements.
The 1,300-page bill was unveiled Tuesday after a bicameral conference between Senate and House lawmakers, following each chamber’s putting forward a competing six-year bill. It is the first long-term highway bill to pass Congress since 2005.
Among other provisions, the bill expands the funding available for bridges off the National Highway System, eliminates or consolidates at least six offices within the U.S. Department of Transportation and encourages the installation of vehicle-to-infrastructure communication equipment to improve congestion and safety. It would also increase the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration civil penalties cap and makes changes to the auto safety recall process.
Public transit would get an 18 percent funding boost over five years, with dedicated bus funding increased even more. The bill also directs a review intended to help create federal minimum safety standards for public transportation and would make several changes to how Amtrak operates, for instance seeking to reorganize its operations around supporting its “major business lines” and giving states more control over routes through the creation of a State-Supported Route Committee.
It would also allow for the current $200 million liability cap on Amtrak incidents to be adjusted to account for inflation, as well as specifically lifting the cap to $295 million for claims stemming from the deadly May 12 derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers and injured dozens more.
The bill further includes a clause reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank, that backs exports by U.S. businesses via loans and loan guarantees, through 2019. The bank’s charter had been allowed to lapse in June, amid opposition from several senior lawmakers, most prominently House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, whose committee is responsible for related legislation.
Opponents argue the bank is an exemplar of “crony capitalism,” but a bipartisan coalition supportive of the bank argues it helps support many domestic jobs and used the rarely-invoked procedural move of a so-called discharge petition to force a bill reauthorizing the bank onto the House floor in October.
To help pay for transportation programs, FAST reauthorizes the federal gasoline tax through fiscal 2022, although keeps it at the existing 18.3 cents-per-gallon level, where it has remained since 1993. The tax typically brings in around $35 billion each year, but factors such as inflation, increasing fuel economy standards and a decrease in average miles driven each year mean this is not enough to fulfill yearly demand according to legislative history.
Thus, lawmakers have included several other offsets for the bill’s full $305 billion authorization, including an increase in aviation security fees that airline passengers pay, tightened enforcement on certain outstanding taxes — including a controversial provision to raise revenue by requiring the Internal Revenue Service to hire private collection agencies to recoup certain tax debts — and the sale of oil from the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
A clause that has drawn criticism from the banking industry would limit the dividend banks with more than $10 billion in assets are paid on Federal Reserve stock. Banks currently receive a flat 6 percent on this stock, required to be purchased to participate in the Fed system, but would instead receive the lower of 6 percent or a rate equal to the high yield of the 10-year U.S. Treasury note at the most recent note auction. Smaller banks would continue to receive 6 percent.