US Senate committee advances $287B roads and bridges bill; includes Capito provisions for Appalachia

MORGANTOWN — A federal bill to fund the nation’s infrastructure and bring more federal road money to West Virginia cleared a key U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday and heads to the full Senate for consideration sometime this fall. 

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the 2019 America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act in a unanimous, bipartisan 21-0 vote. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., chairs EPW’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, co-sponsored the bill and explained its benefits during a Tuesday press conference call after the vote. 

Overall, she said, the five-year surface transportation reauthorization act provides $287 billion across those five years for roads, bridges and other projects. Of that, $259 billion will go to the states via their funding formulas for them to prioritize and use as needed. 

Capito said the bill provides a 27% increase over the current FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, passed in 2015) and is the largest highway bill in history. 

Capito said she talked with estate Department of Transportation about the bill, and DOT reflected the wishes of most: certainty of funding across the five years. 

Among the bill’s highlights: 

— $6 billion of new money for a program to address the backlog of deficient bridges across the nation. Capito said she pushed for this item. “I think that will be really helpful to West Virginia.” 

— Streamlined road project permitting by codifying “One Federal Decision” policy. Project permits typically slog through a series of agencies – Transportation, EPA, Fish and Wildlife, Army Corps. The bill consolidates the decision making process under the Department of Transportation and tightens the timelines, including two yeas for environmental reviews. 

— A $4.9 billion program to support projects to improve the ability of roads and bridges to survive natural disasters and extreme weather. 

The ATIA incorporates three bills Capito introduced. 

— The Appalachian Regional Commission Reauthorization Act funds the ARC at $180 million through 2025, with $20 million of that for Appalachian broadband deployment. 

— The Advancing Infrastructure Development in Appalachia Act would help fund completion of Corridor H by allowing states with unspent Appalachian Development Highway System funds to channel them to West Virginia for the last remaining ADHS project: Corridor H. Capito credited her staff with devising  this idea. 

— The Appalachian Regional Energy Hub Initiative Act devotes $5 million to help develop an Appalachian ethane storage hub system. 

Capito mentioned one issue that stands could hamper all the bill’s good things: money. Federal roads money comes from the federal gas tax. And as in West Virginia, that income is shrinking because vehicles are more fuel efficient, and some are electric. Are variety of ideas are being stewed over to shore up that income, including a vehicle-miles-traveled tax and an electric car fee – both of which would tailor taxation to road use. 

Capito also commented on how ATIA would dovetail with Gov. Jim Justice’s Roads to Prosperity program. Pretty well, she believes.  West Virginia would see $553 million in its federal aid in its first year of the plan – a big increase over current funding. 

Federal money has to be matched 80-20, she said, and Roads to Prosperity will provide a good matching pool to draw down the federal dollars. “So I think it jibes very nicely with his program.” 

The state Division of Highways did not respond to a request for comment on the act or what its current level of federal funding is. 

However, Capito’s office provided some figures gleaned from the Federal Highway Administration. 

West Virginia will receive an estimated $483.97 million in the last year of the FAST Act, Fiscal Year 2020, which starts Oct. 1. In the first year under ATIA, West Virginia would get an estimated $533.99 million, which is a single-year increase of $50 million. 

Each year, this increases about $11 million. Over the five-year bill, West Virginia would receive more than $2.7 billion in total, Capito’s office said. 

Capito said she believes the bill could hit the Senate floor sometime in the fall. Senators will want to look it over, discuss all the creative ideas in the bill. The House has its own infrastructure bill, but that hasn’t moved yet and part of the reason they got ATIA moving so soon is to incentivize the House to get its bill rolling. 

The bipartisan support of it, so far, bodes well for its success, she said. 

The Dominion Post asked Sen. Joe Manchin for a comment on the bill and he provided this statement in an email exchange: “When I was a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I worked hard to ensure that we passed the FAST Act, the first federal law in over a decade to provide long-term funding certainty for surface transportation infrastructure planning and investment. 

“I’m glad that Sen. Capito and the rest of the EPW Committee have introduced and passed their portion of the reauthorization bill, but this is the beginning of a long process that will require action in multiple committees.  I just got the bill text on Monday and I’m still reviewing it but it seems like there are many provisions I will support.”





By:  David Beard
Source: The Dominion Post