The 2015 Federal Transportation Bill - The FAST Act

Philadelphia bus
A bus loads a wheelchair in Center City Philadelphia. Christopher MacKechnie

The 2015 Federal Transportation Bill – the FAST Act

On Thursday, December 3, 2015, the United State House of Representatives and the Senate passed a five year $305 billion transportation bill called the FAST (Fixing America's Surface Transportation) act that is expected to be quickly signed into office by President Obama.  Of the $305 billion, $230 will go to highways, $60 billion will go to roads, $10 billion will go to passenger rail, and $5 billion will go to safety programs.

  Overall the total is about $10 billion over MAP-21 levels.  In sum, the FAST act is very similar to MAP-21, with some minor improvements being cancelled out by some drawbacks.


The bill assigns $10 billion to Amtrak, and first the first time allows the agency to return profits earned along the Northeast Corridor to the Northeast Corridor instead of distributed as subsidies to the many money-losing routes the train system operates in the rest of the country.  Also, for the first time Amtrak is included in the usual transportation authorization instead of being dealt with as a separate line item.


The bill raises the cap on expenditures after a transit accident from $200 million to $295 million, and authorizes $200 million to assist train companies in the implementation of positive train control (PTC).  The maximum fine for safety defects would increase from $35 to $105 million.


One major problem with this bill is that does not resolve the ever increasing gap between authorized transportation funding and revenues collected by the Highway Trust Fund.  Despite not being raised since 1993, gas taxes were left at their current level in this bill.  Instead, the IRS is authorized to hire private debt collectors to receive unpaid taxes and the dividend rate the Federal Reserve pays banks has been cut.

  $70 billion of this program will be coming out of the general fund.  Funding for walking and biking has been preserve, but its Transportation Alternatives Program has been capped at $850 million.  It is fair to ask whether gas taxes and other user fees will ever be increased enough to fund transportation.

Transit-Oriented Development and Other Innovations

For the first time, transit-oriented development will be eligible for federal financing programs such as TIFIA and RRIF loans.  While a good step, the total amount of money for TIFIA loans has been slashed from $1 billion to $275 million.  In sum, despite the promise of a different transportation tomorrow engendered by the development of transportation network companies, the bill does not deviate from status-quo thinking.  In addition, there is nothing in the act that treats climate change as something that should be acted upon, perhaps acted upon by changing how Americans get around their cities.

No New Performance or Accountability Measures

The bill includes no new performance or accountability measures, which no doubt pleases public transit agencies which currently devote a significant part of their staffing time to filling out a variety of different forms for local and state governments as well as federal agencies like the Federal Transit Administration.


90% of the funds in a new freight program are for highway projects, living little left for other freight options like ports, railroads, and intelligent transportation system.  Any diversion of freight to non-highway modes would of course be expected to improve congestion.


Overall, the FAST program continues more of the same transportation options we became used to in MAP-21.  Unfortunately, Congress was unable to come up with new financing so that too much of the transportation bill is paid for with general funds.