The Rebuild With Us campaign called on Congress to pass a comprehensive infrastructure package, and on July 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act (H.R.2). This is the first installment in a local leader blog series from NLC’s Federal Advocacy committee chairs that will showcase wins for cities, towns and villages as we continue to advocate for Senate action on infrastructure.
Infrastructure is as essential to cities and towns as American flags flying on July 4th. Before our Representatives in Congress came back home to their districts for the Independence Day break, the House passed the Moving Forward Act (H.R.2) with an extensive investment plan for roads, bridges, transit, water, broadband, workforce and financing opportunities for America’s infrastructure. For years, cities across the country have been asking Congress to Rebuild With Us. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated there’s at least $4.5 trillion in infrastructure needs nationally, with transportation needs (bridges, roads and transit) making up almost half of that. The Moving Forward House bill puts $1.5 trillion on the Congressional negotiating table to invest in core American infrastructure, proudly made and manufactured in America, and built by American workers. It’s a great place to start the discussion.
Here in Kansas City, we’ve been reminded of just how essential infrastructure is, as we’ve gone through the process of dealing with the historic but decrepit Buck O’Neil Bridge that crosses the Missouri River. The bridge is more than 60 years old and carries almost 45,000 vehicles per day. The state-owned bridge is one of the most important links across the Missouri River, connecting downtown Kansas City with the fast-growing neighborhoods and nearby cities across the river. It’s a vital connection to both the downtown and international airports. When the bridge was discovered to be on its last leg, the state was going to have to shut it down for two-years just to fix it.
For leaders of Kansas City, this was a non-starter. To have to shut down a piece of infrastructure like the Buck O’Neil Bridge for two years would be an economic and physical calamity. We went to the eight cities and counties whose residents also depend daily on the bridge, and they agreed on a regional solution to commit two cycles of the Kansas City region’s portion of the federal Surface Transportation Program funding to the bridge, or $40 million. Additionally, our residents approved a $60 million capital improvements sales tax to come up with what the state lacked. We were also assisted by a federal BUILD Grant to cover the construction contingencies, but we still need the state to come up with its $100M share. We sacrificed by having to delay a number of other significant local projects, but we’re rebuilding our region together.
We were lucky because a lot of communities are just stuck with a closed bridge, and that’s why the Moving Forward Act is so important. The Moving Forward Act proposes nearly $500 billion to rebuild and reimagine the nation’s transportation infrastructure, and it puts a $28 billion, fix-it-first emphasis on old bridges like the Buck O’Neil, as well as makes $1 billion available to bridges off the highway system. Bridges can be big ticket items to pay for, and these provisions in Moving Forward make it easier to bring together the funding for cities and regions like ours to get a better bridge out of the deal. Fixing more bad bridges is just the start of a list of great updates in the Moving Forward package, and we’ve summarized some key wins for cities and towns below.
However, Congress still has work to do to get an infrastructure package across the finish line. The Senate needs to come to the negotiation table in order to arrive at a final package before the September 30th transportation deadline. I know that each city leader that picks up the phone or sends a note to their Senator and Representative will help advance this. Let’s keep asking Congress to Rebuild With Us until the ink is dry.
Here are seven key ways the Moving Forward bill supports local transportation programs:
Increases Federal Match and Eligible Expenses During COVID-19
Recognizing the budget challenges of cities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the transportation provisions of the bill extend current program through FY2021, with an increased federal share and additional eligible expenses, much like the CARES Act. This will help localities struggling to reach their local match in ongoing projects. Given the number of cities and regions utilizing sales taxes for their portion of transportation projects, the dip in revenues should be closely watched.
Spreads the Surface Transportation Program
Local governments maintain about 77% of all U.S. roadway miles, and the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program is one of the few federal programs where funds can be flexibly used for maintenance, safety and local needs. The local portion of this program has fluctuated over time, but through the advocacy of city leaders and the support of Rep. Carbajal (CA), it will continue to rise from 55% in 2020 to 60% over the five-year bill. In response to local concerns, the bill increased both the transparency and spread of STB funds across the state by requiring reporting on spending in areas by population – between 49,999 and 200,001; greater than 4,999 and less than 50,000; and less than 5,000. This change will bring more projects to more medium sized and small communities.
Over $1 Billion in New Local Transportation Grants
Moving Forward included four new local-specific grant programs.
- Community Transportation Investment Grants – $600 million per year for local governments to use for highway and transit projects.
- Community Climate Innovation Grants – $250 million per year to non-State applicants for highway, transit, and rail projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Gridlock Reduction Grants – $250 million for reducing urban congestion in large metro areas.
- Rebuild Rural Grants – $250 million to address safety, state of good repair, and access to jobs and services.
Walking and Biking Options Grow and Get Easier
The Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) would be funded at $6 billion over four years, which is nearly double current levels, and the Recreational Trails Program is set to grow as well. Changes included will help get projects built faster and lessen the burden of match funding on localities. An estimated $1 billion over four years will be spent on vulnerable user safety assessments, which is critical to local safety goals. Safe Routes to School projects can now be built using safety funding, and state Safe Routes to School coordinators are returning to this popular program.
Rail Crossing and Safety Gains
The safety of rail crossings has been a burden on localities as growth near railways and traffic on the tracks has increased. Moving Forward establishes a standalone railway crossing program, and now railway crossing funds can be used toward the cost of projects selected for the Federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) discretionary grant program. Eligible uses will include projects to mitigate lost access from a crossing closure. A national strategy will be required for blocked rail crossings and to publish information for railroads contacts.
New PRIME Grants for Intercity Rail Funding
The new intercity passenger rail funding program – the Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization, and Expansion (PRIME) Grants – will provide $19 billion over five years for state of good repair projects, service improvement projects, and rail expansion projects. Priority will be given for projects with strong regional planning, those with support of multiple states or that have environmental benefits. Following the precedent of current federal programs, 40% is reserved for North East Corridor (NEC) projects and 40% is reserved for projects outside the NEC, with a federal cost-share of up to 90%.
Transit Catches Up and Speeds Up
The bill invests $105 billion in transit programs, with funding increases for buses and zero emission buses to make up for cuts in the two prior reauthorization cycles. Incentives are included to boost frequency and ridership, including $100 million in annual grants for cities and transit providers to tackle larger city street congestion issues. The bill also begins to integrate Mobility on Demand and advances data sharing practices among partners.
Share Your Perspective with the Senate
This long-awaited and comprehensive infrastructure proposal is welcome news for cities, towns and villages who have been calling for a federal partner to rebuilding and reimagining our nation’s infrastructure, but it will not move forward without Senate support. As local governments continue to feel the fiscal impacts from the coronavirus public health crisis, NLC asks you to reach out to your Senators to brief them on the economic conditions in your city and the need for additional infrastructure support. Here is an easy guide to get you started, and if you need additional information for who to reach out to, email NLC’s Federal Advocacy team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now is the time for Congress and the administration to move forward on infrastructure.
About the Authors:
Dan Fowler is a Councilmember from Kansas City, Missouri, representing Kansas City’s 2nd District and serves as the chair of the NLC Transportation and Infrastructure Services Committee.
Brittney Kohler is the legislative director for transportation and infrastructure at the National League of Cities.