By Dean Franks, senior vice president for congressional relations, ARTBA

Bipartisan leadership of the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee Nov. 10 released their FY 2021 spending bill that proposes an additional $4.5 billion in funding for highway, public transit and airport capital spending, bringing the potential four-year total of additional resources to $20.4 billion.  

Congress has added similar supplemental funding during the previous three fiscal years (FY 2018-20), which has totaled $15.9 billion.

“The absence of a robust federal infrastructure package and a multi-year reauthorization of the surface transportation programs elevates the need to secure supplemental transportation resources in the FY 2021 appropriations process,” ARTBA CEO Dave Bauer wrote in a Nov. 8 letter to the Senate leaders. “Pandemic-related budget impacts have forced states and localities to delay or cancel $12 billion in planned transportation projects. Additional resources would assist these states and allow others to fortify their economies by continuing to deliver essential highway, bridge, transit and airport improvements.”

Here are key points of the Senate proposal, and a chart comparing the proposal with FY 2020 actuals:

 Highways:

  • Continues Highway Trust Fund (HTF) supported highway programs at FY 2020 levels, consistent with the one-year extension of the FAST Act surface transportation law running through September 2021.
  • Recommends $2.365 billion in additional highway investment, provided by the General Fund.
  • Exceeds FY 2020 highway number by $200 million.  

Public Transportation 

  • Provides same core level funding from HTF in FY 2021 as in FY 2020.
  • Proposes an additional $702 million, to be paid from the General Fund, for various supplemental public transportation programs.   

Airports 

  • Authorizes $3.35 billion in core Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants for runway, taxiway and other capital improvements at airports of all sizes across the country. 
  • Proposes an additional $400 million for AIP-eligible projects to be distributed by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.   

Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Grants

  • Provides $1 billion (same as in FY 2020) multi-modal surface transportation grant program formerly known as TIGER.
  • Allows Office of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to select winning projects.

NEXT STEPS

Senators will next begin negotiations with their House counterparts, who passed their own version of the bill last summer.  They will work towards a compromise version acceptable to leaders from both chambers. The House bill included dramatically-increased spending levels for core highway and transit programs based on the House-passed surface reauthorization bill, the Moving Forward Act. That bill never moved further, with Congress instead extending the FAST Act for one year.   

ARTBA expects the conference process to produce an FY 2021 appropriations bill that looks much like the Senate proposal, including the authorized funding levels for the surface transportation and AIP programs, as well as supplemental spending levels relatively close to the Senate’s numbers.   

Since the election, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have publicly expressed optimism about getting the final FY 2021 appropriations legislation done before the end of the calendar year.  The current continuing resolution (i.e. short-term spending authority) expires Dec. 11.   

With the pandemic constraining state and local capital budgets, this supplemental $4.5 billion in funding would be very helpful to those agencies and the industry.  While not a substitute for a well-funded, multi-year reauthorization bill, this fourth straight year of additional funding could be seen as a “down payment” on what we hope to achieve in 2021, and a positive sign for transportation investment advocates.