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US ushers in reforms with new transportation bill

First publishedin ITS International on www.ITSInternational.com
2012 July August
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Paul Feenstra is executive VP of Keystone Public Affairs
Paul Feenstra is executive VP of Keystone Public Affairs, a government relations and strategic communications  rm which advocates for clients in the transportation, technology, energy and defense industries. Prior to joining Keystone, he was VP of Government and Public Affairs at ITS America, where he continues to serve as a legislative consultant.

On behalf of ITS America, Paul Feenstra maps out implications and opportunities for the ITS industry.

A critical milestone was reached last month when the US Congress passed, and President Obama signed, legislation reauthorising the nation’s surface transportation programmes, breaking a nearly three-year log-jam which had stymied critical transportation reforms and delayed much-needed infrastructure projects.

The law, numbered P.L. 112-141 but known as MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), provides funding for highway, transit, research and other surface programmes through the end of Fiscal Year 2014.

Policymakers managed to cobble together enough money to fund transportation programnes at current levels plus inflation over the next two-plus years, despite punting on the critical transportation financing reforms which will be needed to address the growing insolvency of the fuel tax-supported Highway Trust Fund.

But while the revenue debate will continue (a discussion in which the ITS community must play a key role), new policy reforms will begin taking place on 1 October that will greatly increase the need for technology solutions and provide new opportunities for companies in the ITS industry.

Performance-based

One of the significant reforms, advocated by ITS America and others, is the transition to a more performance-based transportation system with a revised statewide and metropolitan planning process that emphasises efficient system management and operations to help achieve performance goals.

Declaring that “Performance management will transform the Federal-aid highway program and provide a means to the most efficient investment of Federal transportation funds…,” the bill establishes seven goal areas that are deemed to be in the national interest: safety, infrastructure condition, congestion reduction, system reliability, freight movement and economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and reduced project delivery delays.

Based on these high-level goals, the US Department of Transportation (DoT) will establish performance standards and measures in consultation with State DoTs, metropolitan areas and other stakeholders. Among these are more traditional measures such as pavement and bridge condition and traffic fatality and serious injury rates. However, the bill also requires performance measures to be established for categories including traffic congestion, on-road mobile source emissions, and freight movement.

Once US DoT issues its final performance measures rulemaking (which is required in 18 months), States will have one year to set specific performance targets which reflect the identified measures, with metropolitan areas following suit 180 days later. This tiered approach reflects the balancing act in the US between Federal, state and local government jurisdictions, while also ensuring that transportation agencies at all levels are accountable for improving safety and system performance and ensuring the nation’s infrastructure is in a state of good repair.

Gone (for now) are the days of Congressional earmarks and unaccountable spending. While this performance-based approach is good policy, it is also good business for the ITS industry. ITS will be needed to both measure performance in categories like congestion and system reliability, and also to improve performance across the board – from safety and infrastructure condition to freight movement and environmental sustainability.

Four core programmes

Another reform in MAP-21 is the consolidation of dozens of highway programs into four core programmes – National Highway Performance, Surface Transportation, Highway Safety Improvement, and Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality. These programs represent the bulk of the funding for state and local agencies, and ITS technologies are broadly eligible for funding in each programme with additional language to encourage specific solutions like real-time traffic and transit information, electronic toll collection, travel demand management, and other advanced traffic management and pricing strategies.

The law also requires US DoT to establish a new National Freight Policy and encourage individual states to develop their own freight plans which will be incentivised to invest in ITS technologies, operational strategies and other measures to improve freight efficiency and safety. The law will also speed up the adoption of ITS to improve the safety and efficiency of public transit systems including bus rapid transit (BRT).
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Traffic on a highway

Another victory

Another victory for the ITS community is the restoration of funding for the federal ITS research programme, which had been reduced by half in earlier versions of the bill. At the urging of ITS America, House and Senate negotiators agreed in the final hours to restore the ITS research programme to $100 million per year, thereby saving the Connected Vehicle programme and other vital research projects.

ITS America had also advocated separate ITS deployment funding, and worked with Congress to design a competitive grant programme for large-scale deployment of smart technology solutions in a handful of model cities and communities. The Smart Technologies for Communities Act, which had been adopted by the Senate, was removed from the final legislation in order to restore funding for ITS research. However, a broader Technology and Innovation Deployment programme was included to accelerate the adoption of innovative technologies across the transportation system. This new $62.5 million initiative will continue to move the ball forward toward greater deployment of ITS and other innovative technology solutions.

Which brings us back to transportation financing. While the new law doesn’t address the dwindling gas tax revenues being deposited into the Highway Trust Fund, it does include a number of provisions to leverage transportation dollars and reduce costly delays in infrastructure projects.

The first is the expansion of the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan programme, which is currently funded at $122 million per year. The new law increases funding to $750 million in 2013 and $1 billion in 2014 and streamlines the application process, with the expectation that the programme will leverage 10 times these amounts in total infrastructure spending. In addition, ITS projects are eligible for assistance at a lower threshold ($15 million) than traditional projects, and the revamped programme allows applicants to receive funding for a “programme of projects” which will make it easier for ITS projects to qualify.

Tolling measures

The law also expands tolling authority as a way for states to raise additional revenue, while continuing to restrict tolling on most of the Interstate system. States will be allowed to toll new and existing highway facilities provided the number of toll-free, non-high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes after construction is not reduced. Tolling will however be allowed on any reconstructed bridges or tunnels, and the law allows conversion of HOV lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes with the stipulation that the toll facilities must utilise electronic toll collection systems and develop policies enabling demand management through variable pricing.

One of the major accomplishments of the law was for policymakers to reach bipartisan agreement on a series of provisions to reduce red tape, streamline environmental reviews and accelerate project approvals. In the same spirit, the legislation declares it in the national interest to promote the use of innovative technologies and practices that increase the efficiency of construction, improve the safety, and extend the service life of highways and bridges, including “state-of-the-art intelligent transportation system technologies, elevated performance standards, and new highway construction business practices that improve highway safety and quality, accelerate project delivery, and reduce congestion related to highway construction.”

Solid foundation

MAP-21 will expire in a little over two years, but the policies set in place provide a solid foundation for the future of the US transportation network. The law reflects the active participation of ITS America members and partners, and particularly those who sponsored and participated in our Campaign for Intelligent Transportation Solutions which enabled the ITS community to actively and successfully engage in the legislative debate.

And while the ink is still drying on MAP-21 and the implementation process is set to begin, it’s already time to start the drumbeat for more sustainable financing mechanisms in the next bill. Whether through increased tolling, public-private partnerships, a transition to mileage-based user fees, or simply raising the gas tax…the ITS community must continue to be in the middle of the debate.

To find out more about how you can help, contact Quentin Kelly at ITS America at qkelly@itsa.org or Paul Feenstra at Keystone Public Affairs at paul@kpa-llc.com or 202-906-0959

Companies in this article

ITS America
www.ITSA.org
US Congress
www.congress.org
US Department of Transportation
www.DOT.gov

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