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Freight Network Improvements Among Major Aims of Long-Term Transportation Bill

Thursday, December 10, 2015
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

The House and Senate both approved recently a five-year surface transportation bill that reauthorizes federal highway, transit, highway safety, motor carrier safety, hazardous materials and passenger rail programs. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bud Shuster, R-Pa., said the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (Act “will help repair and improve the critical transportation network that we all rely on every day to … get the goods and products we need.” Senate Commerce Committee Chair John Thune, R-S.D., added that this bill offers states “flexibility, certainty and relief from red tape,” meaning “we’re going to get more projects off the ground.”

One of the more significant freight-related changes included in this bill is the creation of the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects Program, a competitive grant program that will facilitate the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects of national and regional importance that are difficult to complete solely using existing federal, state, local and private funds. A new formula program for highway freight projects is also established. Lawmakers said a wide range of freight projects should be eligible under the new formula and grant programs, including projects that eliminate freight bottlenecks, use new technologies to improve the efficiency of freight movement, and modify highways to provide additional freight capacity, including by physically separating passenger vehicles from commercial trucks.

The bill also focuses attention on the importance of multimodal freight transportation. The bill designates a National Multimodal Freight Network to assist states in strategically directing resources and informing freight transportation planning and requires the redesignation of the network every five years to reflect changes in freight flows. A new national multimodal freight strategic plan will, among other things, assess the conditions and performance of this network and develop best practices for improving its performance, including critical commerce corridors and critical urban and rural access to those corridors.

Other provisions in this bill include the following.

- seeks to make the process for federal approval of major infrastructure projects more efficient by creating a council composed of the relevant permitting agencies to establish best practices and model timelines for review, designate individuals within agencies with primary responsibility for coordinating reviews and agency decisions, and shorten the time in which challenges to final decisions can be made

- establishes a working group and an annual reporting requirement to collect additional freight data to help improve the movement of freight throughout the country

- improves rail infrastructure and safety by consolidating rail grant programs and cutting red tape

- promotes private investment in the surface transportation system as well as the deployment of transportation technologies and congestion management tools

- accelerates administrative processes for hazardous materials special permits and approvals

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