By John Schneidawind, vice president of public affairs, ARTBA 

Reduced user fee revenues due to the COVID-19 economic downturn will cause the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to run out of money by spring 2021, underscoring the need for Congress and the Trump administration to pass a surface transportation reauthorization bill as soon as possible, a top federal transportation official told ARTBA’s 32nd Annual Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) in Transportation Conference. Several speakers at the July 16-17 conference, held for the first time in a virtual format, echoed this sentiment.

U.S. DOT Acting Undersecretary for Policy Joel Szabat said that HTF revenue derived through the federal gas tax is currently flowing roughly one-third below normal due to highway traffic dropping from pandemic-induced shutdowns. Szabat emphasized surface transportation reauthorization is the top legislative priority of his department and referenced the framework for a 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure investment proposal the Trump administration released in February.  He also said the administration continues to prefer a “user pays” approach, to the extent possible.

Szabat said U.S. DOT has been a leader within the administration on regulatory relief efforts, especially in seeking to accelerate the project permitting process. This effort has included 68 regulatory rollbacks, in contrast with six new rules put in place. Much of the work that’s accomplished by the transportation construction industry is not possible without “a vibrant P3 sector,” he said, “especially when it’s things we can do to get out of the way.”

State and regional transportation agency leaders also said reduced revenue from lower highway traffic is hitting all states hard. In Louisiana, “we’re managing that as crisis Number One,” said Dr. Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state’s Department of Transportation and Development. In New York City, Pat Foye, chairman and CEO of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), said he needs additional funds from Congress to keep the agency operating, while its $51 billion capital improvement plan is on hold. Foye also expressed support for a streamlined federal permitting process with more certain timelines.