The FAST Act, Transportation System, and America

By scholarship award winner Madeline Miller

“Americans across the country take 35 million trips on transportation each day equating to 10.8 billion trips annually.” The transportation system is a vital part of our national way of life, and we rely on transportation for almost all aspects of our life. The FAST legislation passed early in December of 2015 by President Barack Obama is a five-year bill of transportation infrastructure. The bill will invest $61 billion towards the nation’s public transportation system, and it authorizes more than $300 billion towards surface transportation infrastructure. FAST stands for “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act”, and while it promises billions towards bettering our American transportation networks and systems, it leaves a lot unsaid and ignored. While the FAST legislation has several positive effects, I think that there are far more negative ones that are dominant. It both positively and negatively affects individual modes of transportation, and the transportation industry as a whole.

There are several positive aspects of the FAST act that can affect not only individual modes of transportation, but the industry as a whole as well. The bill is a nod to the transportation industry, considering it is the first long-term transportation bill that has been passed in 10 years. According to the American Public Transportation Association, the bill is supported by the industry as they “applaud both chambers of Congress for their bipartisan votes to pass the bill”. Not only does it increase previous funding by $10 billion dollars, it preserves the TOD (Transit-Oriented Development Grants) program that helps communities make the best use of land around the transit lines and stops, and locates jobs and housing near transit stations, which in turn will boost ridership. This positively affects not only the transit system, but it will better communities, as well. The bill also mentions authorization for passenger rail, which previously has been unmentioned before in legislation. This positively affects the passenger rail system by making it a larger option in the future for the public. The new bill also increases funding for projects in the metro area and on highways, this affects the bus system, trains and freight / freeway travel. The bill also lowers TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan minimums for projects from $50 million to $10 million which makes it much more accessible for smaller projects to get funding. The FAST legislation has a broadened audience and it has made it so state DOT’s and MPO’s (Metropolitan Planning Organization) have to take into consideration all users of roadways when considering new projects. So, that means sidewalk users will see action from this bill. It affects a wide range of people on all spectrums of the transportation system.

In contrast, there are many negative issues in the FAST act that I believe impact the transportation system much more greatly than the positive ones. The first issue is that 90% of the funding is designated for freight/highway programs, which really is only affecting one of the many areas of the transportation network and one mode of transportation. It ignores air transport, the shipping and port industry, and largely the railway system, as well. This is a hastily-generalized solution for a problem that varies based on the area. Also, there aren’t any new ways of measuring the performance of the bill. Unlike the previous bill MAP-21, which was taking steps towards this action, FAST stops it altogether. This means there is no way to see how it affects the local residents and job opportunities. Another similar issue is that there is no way to see how the money is really being spent, and there is no accountability for how selective public agencies are with the projects that they choose. While funding for safer sidewalk travel like biking and walking was included, it was only included to an extent. The budget for the Transportation Alternatives program is capped at $850 million. Large metropolitan areas are also allowed to re-designate the money to other projects if they choose to do so, this is called “flexing”. This bill also loses American trust over time because it really doesn’t benefit smaller communities (with populations less than 200,000) because the DOT gets to decide how to spend the money, which ignores small town transportation and road problems. America is built on the backs of small towns, and to let them down and ignore the projects that they need is to lose the trust of a hardworking population. Finally, the FAST legislation is very last- minute and poorly funded. The bill was voted on hours before the funding expired, and 1/3 of the bill is paid for upfront by tax revenue. Which, as a result, digs the country further into the debt hole and loses even more American trust.

To conclude, I believe that while the new FAST legislation may have charmed the transportation system upfront, in the long run there will be many downsides that will minimally affect the transportation industry as a whole. The legislation largely ignores many modes of transportation and gives most control over to the Federal DOT, which ignores smaller communities and loses trust of a key group of American people over time. In the end, negative aspects of the bill far outweigh the positive ones.