A new federal surface transportation bill was signed into law earlier this month. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act that Congress passed is a five-year, $305 billion, 1,300-page monster that contains some positive provisions for the Southeast but also curbs environmental reviews and limits meaningful public input into transportation projects as well as many other large, complex infrastructure projects.
Among the good news is the inclusion of a rail title in the surface transportation bill for the first time. Previously rail received short shrift as a standalone bill that had to work its way through Congress on its own. Including it in the larger transportation statute will aid our efforts to promote increased passenger and freight rail throughout the region. Another positive step is cities’ greater flexibility in designing streets to benefit pedestrians, cyclists, and all users of a road, rather than being bound by narrower state guidelines.
Among the bad news is the fact that almost 10 percent of the 1,300 pages of the FAST Act are devoted to rolling back important environmental safeguards. Following on the heels of major changes included in the last major transportation bill just three years ago, the new legislation presses forward to further erode the ability of affected communities to be informed of, and meaningfully participate in, major decisions affecting them. Other new provisions limit the ability of federal and state agencies to suggest less-damaging alternatives to a particular proposal, while still other provisions trim protection of historic resources from being damaged or destroyed by transportation projects.
Moreover, non-transportation provisions were added to the legislation that will have far-reaching effects by stretching the assault on public participation, transparency, meaningful environmental impact analysis, and citizens’ ability to protect their communities in court to cover any federal non-transportation infrastructure project costing $200 million or greater. This provision is dangerously broad and could apply to, among other projects, pipelines, transmission lines, and energy production.
Critical infrastructure legislation must not be treated as a vehicle for provisions meant to reduce planning and investment in cleaner transportation options, hobble basic protections for clean air and water, and limit public participation in the decision-making process.