Top Obama Administration officials say they are pleased that the recently passed Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act recognizes the importance of investing in freight planning and infrastructure—and particularly noted the law provides new opportunities to fund rail, port and intermodal projects from the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). They are vowing to focus in the months ahead on implementation of freight provisions in the law.

Of note, the FAST Act created a $900 million per year Nationally Significant Freight & Highway Projects (NSFHP) Program that allows the secretary of transportation to provide grants of at least $25 million to projects costing over $100 million.  It also allows the secretary to use up to $500 million of the cumulative $4.5 billion provided for this program over five years for port, freight rail and intermodal projects—ensuring at least $4 billion would be used for highway projects.

Revealing its priorities for the program, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) released documents February 26 naming grants from the new freight and highway program as “Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies Grants.”  While only 11 percent of the program’s total allocations could go toward shipping or other non-highway projects, the Administration’s presentation of the program is clearly biased and it should surprise no one if it attempts to award as much as possible of the $500 million that can be used for non-highway projects during the final 10 months of the Obama Administration.

At USDOT’s 2016 Freight Summit on Feb. 29, Administration representatives discussed recently announced freight funding opportunities from the NSFHP Program and the $500 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program that supports a variety of intermodal transportation projects.  The TIGER program is supported by general funds, while grants under the NSFHP Program will come from the HTF.  Applications for the NSFHP Program grants are due April 14; TIGER applications are due April 29.

ARTBA has called for the creation of a dedicated freight program since 2006 to fill a clear void in existing federal highway policy.  Many elements of the FAST Act’s new National Highway Freight Program—which provides funds to all states to support highway-related freight projects—and the NSFHP Program reflect proposals from the ARTBA Critical Commerce Corridors freight program.  ARTBA and the ARTBA co-chaired Transportation Construction Coalition, however, adamantly worked against allowing limited HTF resources to be used for port and freight rail projects where beneficiaries do not contribute to the HTF.

ARTBA will continue to closely monitor the implementation of the FAST Act and promote the interests of the transportation construction industry in both FAST Act funding matters and policy reforms.