$305B transportation bill grows annual outlays for Alaska

  • Work is seen in fall 2014 on the Glenn Highway capacity improvement project in Eagle River. Alaska will receive $2.6 billion in federal funding over the next five years for surface transportation including roads, rail and the ferry system under legislation signed Dec. 4 by President Barack Obama. Photo/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal

President Barack Obama signed into law the nation’s first long-term transportation funding bill in more than a decade on Dec. 4.

The $305 billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act provides five years of funding aimed at improving rail, road and marine infrastructure. It passed both the House and Senate by wide margins the day prior to being signed by the president.

All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation supported the legislation.

Alaska is poised to receive more than $2.6 billion over the life of the FAST Act, with yearly allotment increases. The state took $483.9 million from the federal government for surface transportation programs in federal fiscal year 2015, which ended Sept. 30.

In 2016, that figure jumps to $508.6 million; by the end of the FAST Act in 2020 it is $555.3 million, according to a release from Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office.

Passage of the five-year bill gives funding certainty needed to make infrastructure investments in Alaska, Sullivan said.

“The bill also includes reforms to our permitting system, which will help cut through project-killing red tape and streamline regulatory burdens,” he said in a formal statement. “This bill amounts to a big win for Alaska as it will allow us to not only address our infrastructure needs, but also promote and sustain economic growth throughout the state.”

The legislation establishes a council of relevant federal permitting agencies tasked with determining best practices and modeling timelines for evaluation of major transportation projects in an effort to speed up federal regulatory approval, according to a conference committee summary.

A pilot program will also allow up to five states to substitute their own environmental regulations in place of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, given the states’ laws and regulations are at least as stringent as those in NEPA.

The FAST Act is a win for Alaska, as Sullivan noted, at least when it comes to dollars per Alaskan. A large, young state with limited transportation infrastructure, the $2.6 billion equates to more than $3,500 per Alaskan, while the rest of the country averages $956 per citizen.

“We all recognize that Alaska is in the midst of a budget crisis, so being able to rely on federal funding for critical infrastructure projects, whether it be on roads, bridges, or ferries, is key to our state,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a release.

Murkowski served on the conference committee that resolved the final transportation bill.

Rep. Don Young noted in a statement from his office that the last long-term surface transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, was legislation he authored as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2005. He said the FAST Act is “far from perfect,” but, like Sullivan, added it makes several important reforms to streamline federal permitting.

“The success of any state’s economy directly depends on their ability to move people and products safely and efficiently,” Young said. “That is especially true in a developing and geographically unique state like ours, which is why I worked so hard to secure numerous provision specifically beneficial to Alaskans — including $31 million annually for the Alaska Railroad, ample funding for our ferry program, and significant increases for the Tribal Transportation Program.”

An error in the funding formula in the 2012 MAP-21 transportation bill that cost the Alaska Railroad Corp. $3 million per year is corrected in the FAST Act, which also grew the pool of passenger railroad formula funding. In all, the Alaska Railroad will get a $5 million increase in federal funding annually, according to a railroad spokesman.

Railroads across the country will also have the opportunity to compete for $199 million in federal grants to aid implementation of the federally mandated Positive Train Control safety system, which is expected to cost the Alaska Railroad nearly $160 million by the time it is fully in place in 2018.

The state-owned Alaska Railroad has spent more than $70 million to install Positive Train Control over several years and the Legislature authorized it to sell bonds earlier this year to further the work. Railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan said the railroad will likely apply for federal assistance, but added how that would play into the current PTC funding plan is still unclear.

The previous year-end deadline for railroads to have Positive Train Control in place was pushed back to 2018 in a separate piece of legislation passed earlier this fall.

The Alaska Marine Highway System, hit hard by state operating budget cuts, gets a little more for its capital improvement program. The state ferry system will receive $18.6 million annually for major work on its vessels, which equates to a $2.4 million increase over the five years of the FAST Act.

Earlier versions of surface transportation legislation changed the funding formula for state ferry programs, which could have lessened Alaska’s take and caused concern in the Alaska Department of Transportation.

The Tribal Transportation Program — $450 million per year under the MAP-21 extensions — will get an additional $15 million in 2016 and $10 million more in the following four years.

A new federal freight program designed to fund freight-related highway improvements will send $80 million Alaska’s way over the duration of the legislation as well.

As Alaska and other states legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use, the FAST Act requires a feasibility study be done to investigate impairment standards for drivers under the influence of marijuana, according to a House Transportation briefing.

Updated: 
12/09/2015 - 4:26pm

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