While the pace of progress for transportation infrastructure legislation, specifically the pending need for a new long-term surfce transportation authorization, remains largely under the radar in many circles, it is front and center in the freight transportation and logistics sectors, albeit not always for the right reasons.
But news coming from the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) this week was on the positive side, with DOT Secretary Elaine Chao heralding the most recent round of funding for the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) discretionary grant program to the tune of more than $900 million being made available for United States infrastructure investments. DOT said this round of funding is “expected to award $906 million to significant projects that support the Administration’s focus on infrastructure improvements.”
And DOT Secretary Chao said in a statement that U.S. DOT will invest more than $900 million in major projects that will improve transportation infrastructure, economic productivity, and quality of life across the nation.
DOT said it will award INFRA grants for both large and small projects, with a large project needing to be at least $25 million and a small project being at least $5 million. And it also noted that for each fiscal year of INFRA funds 10% of available funds are reserved for small projects.
In the White House’s fiscal 2020 budget proposal, which was issued in March 2019, there was $2 billion allocated for the INFRA competitive grant program, with a $1 billion increase over the FAST Act-authorized level. The INFRA program provides the seed money needed to boost non-Federal investment for projects that relieve congestion on the U.S. multimodal freight network, according to the White House.
INFRA grants also played a prominent role in legislation introduced in October 2018 by Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), whom also serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, which took a hard look at giving non-highway freight-based transportation infrastructure initiatives a more prominent seat at the table.
Carper’s bill focused on making key investments in ports, railways, and intermodal hubs, with a major emphasis on augmenting the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program, a key freight-related component of the Fixing Americas Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act). The Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program, the legislation noted, is also known as the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program, with the program’s chief objective to make needed investments is critical freight and highway needs.
Elaine Nessle, executive director of the Coalition of America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, said at the time of Carper’s bill being released that the INFRA program was designed to meet freight needs, and as long these needs continue to address freight needs in a stove-piped way, the U.S. won’t get the What’s more, she added that the INFRA program “only allows about 11% of the funding to go to non-highway projects and Senator Carper’s proposal would like to see that entire pot of money under the freight program available to freight projects, regardless of mode to give localities, State DOTs and seaports, or whomever the applicant may be, ultimate flexibility in deciding their highest-priority freight needs regardless of mode.”
The INFRA discretionary grant program continues to make inroads for badly needed infrastructure projects to help facilitate freight flows and keep goods moving. While many view the current allocated amounts to a drop in the bucket, it beats the alternative. 2020 looks to be a telling year for transportation infrastructure, with the Presidential election in November and the looming expiration of the FAST Act a few weeks before that.
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