The United States could soon have a new two-year transportation blueprint that consolidates funding programs, provides for accelerated project approval and delivery, and increases loan money available for state and private projects while maintaining current funding levels.
The new program, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), aims to deliver better outcomes for American citizens.
The blueprint has come with its share of controversy. Following the stalling of a transport bill in the lower house last week, the bill to which the plan is attached and which passed a vote in the Senate on Wednesday, may well be the only legislation with a chance to reach the president prior to the expiration of existing transport funding. That funding, and the authority to glean it from the federal gas tax, expire on March 31.
Business groups have welcomed the plan and are calling for the House of Representatives to pass the bill without delay. American Architects Institute President Jeff Potter says the bill will help promote liveable communities by maintaining funding at current levels, ensuring continued funding for transport enhancement programs and encouraging development around transit stations. Potter has also praised the bill for its relatively straightforward language, which he says will encourage greater participation among the general public in transport planning.
“The House should take up and pass the Senate bill immediately,” he says. “We need to have a bill passed and sent onto President Obama before current federal funding runs out on March 31.”
According to the Washington Post, however, the plan does not resolve a pressing issue with regard to meeting the financial demands of replacing systems across the country which are reaching the end of their lifespan.
How the Plan Works
The key objectives of the new plan revolve around consolidating and simplifying funding programs, providing more money for state and private projects, improving safety and performance by refocusing highway programs on key outcomes, accelerating project decisions and delivery and improving the planning process.
An outline of the plan is as follows:
1) Maintenance of existing funding
Funding, which will be authorised for the next two years, will be maintained at current levels.
2) Fewer, simpler programs
The new plan consolidates 87 existing funding programs into fewer than 30, and consolidates seven ‘core programs’ into five. These core programs include the National Highway Performance Program, which focuses on the 220,000 miles of roads deemed ‘most critical’ in the nation; the Transportation Mobility Program, which provides State funding for work on Federal-aid highways and bridges and tunnels; the National Freight Program, which provides formula funding to States to improve highway freight movement, including freight intermodal connectors; the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which focuses on projects to improve air quality and minimise transport related carbon emissions; and the Highway Safety Improvement Program; which focuses on safety upgrades and improvements across all public roads in the country.
3) Project financing
The new plan aims to expand and build upon the Transport Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which provides loan funding on favourable terms to private or state-funded projects deemed to be nationally or regionally significant.
Under the new plan, the amount of funding available for such projects will be increased from $122 million annually to $1 billion per year. Additionally, the maximum share of project costs funded under the program will increase from 33 per cent to 49 per cent.
4) Faster project delivery
The plan aims to simplify and reduce project delivery times and costs by expanding the use of innovative contracts, creating dispute resolution procedures, allowing for early right-of-way acquisitions, reducing bureaucratic hurdles for projects with minimal environmental impact, encouraging early coordination between relevant agencies to avoid delays later in review processes, and providing incentives for accelerating project delivery decisions.
5) Refocusing outcomes
The new plan aims to focus the highway program on key outcomes such as reducing bridges, fixing roads and reducing congestion, and improving freight movement. Individual states will be responsible for setting their own goals in these areas.
The blueprint aims to improve state and metropolitan planning processes to incorporate a more comprehensive performance-based approach to decision-making on transport infrastructure within their jurisdictions.