By Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA

The Trump administration and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) are in the early stages of preparing for the next surface transportation reauthorization, senior federal officials told ARTBA’s P3s in Transportation Conference. The December 2015-enacted FAST Act expires in 2020.

Part of the debate is whether to just tweak the existing law, so lawmakers and other stakeholders stay “comfortable,” or to “put tough questions on the table” to change behaviors and outcomes, said Jim Ray, USDOT senior advisor.

He said the USDOT is considering more discretionary grant programs and other measures to encourage more investment from both public and private sector partners. The department decides which projects to fund under grant programs, while states control funds distributed by formula.  Ray added the agency wants to see more life cycle cost and asset management plans as it considers what projects to fund.

Grover Burthey, USDOT deputy assistant secretary for policy, noted a “cultural shift” at the agency. He said the administration’s “One Federal Decision,” which calls on multiple federal agencies to coordinate their review schedules and reach decisions in no more than two years, and other milestone and accountability measures, are creating more transparency and predictability to attract private capital.

State and local government officials, and the general public, must think first about what projects they want and need, and how much they cost to build and maintain, before considering how to pay for them, said Alex Herrgott, associate director for infrastructure at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “If the conversations starts with the gas tax, we’ve lost the debate already,” he said. “Start with what you want, rather than how you pay for it. This is not a devolution conversation, we are already passed that. But we have to decide if we are going to cut the program, raise new revenue, or let the program default.”

Ray said USDOT is focused on trying to pinpoint when electric and hybrid vehicles disrupt the conventional motor fuel tax model past the point of no return, perhaps as soon as 2022.

“We better start figuring out what is going to come after the gas tax,” he said, “because it is going to come a lot quicker than we think.”