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FAST Act will help New York improve transportation

Congress’ recent delivery of a long-term transportation funding package offers substantial new opportunities for New York State to improve its infrastructure.

Signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 4, 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act is set to provide $305 billion in funding over five years, including approximately $9 billion for New York State highways alone. Beyond helping to pay for highways, the funding authorized by the FAST Act will help New York build and maintain bridges and tunnels, transit, rail lines, freight capabilities and ports.

As the president and many others have noted, the law is not perfect, but it is a very positive step for America’s transportation system, and New York’s, and laudable for many reasons. Here are just a few of the important benefits that will flow from the legislation:

Greater funding predictability for states: The law is fully funded for five years, which gives state transportation leaders a predictable flow of federal money as they envision, plan, design and build infrastructure. New York can benefit from that predictability. According to TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based national transportation organization, as of 2015, more than one-third of New York’s major roads are in poor condition. TRIP says that driving on rough roads costs all New York motorists a total of $6.3 billion annually in extra vehicle operating costs. Since New York relies on federal funding for approximately 30 percent of its transportation-related capital investments, the new FAST Act funding will be critically important.

Bolstered freight funding and strategy: New or expanded programs will ease the movement of freight across the nation, critical to achieving greater economic growth and international competitiveness. These include funding for improvements to interstate highways and bridges frequently used for freight, as well as to freight rail infrastructure, ports and intermodal facilities. The FAST Act also establishes a new National Highway Freight Program to create and advance a national freight policy.

Acceleration of disruptive technologies: The new law will provide substantial grants for new technologies that can reduce traffic congestion and improve safety, specifically mentioning autonomous vehicles and collision avoidance technologies.

The law provides some truly innovative opportunities for New York through what is known as Section 6020. This program offers grants to states willing to design and test alternative user funding systems, such as congestion pricing or “vehicle miles traveled,” where driver tolls change based on time of day (drivers pay less when roads are less congested) or pay tolls according to actual miles driven instead of a flat fee.

These aspects of the law – funding predictability, a focus on freight and inspiration for rapid innovation – represent key drivers for creating a stronger, safer transportation system in the years ahead. But, by no means does the FAST Act represent a comprehensive funding solution. The funding levels it provides are modest, and New York’s existing infrastructure alone will demand ever-greater investments as deterioration of aging roads and bridges accelerates in the years ahead.

Vital regional megaprojects, such as the new Tappan Zee Bridge connecting Westchester to Rockland County north of New York City and the Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River to Pennsylvania Station, will require multiple funding sources.

All New Yorkers must work together to meet this maintenance challenge, even as we strive to build for the future. It falls to all of us – industry experts, political leaders, state transportation officials and communities – to sustain the momentum created by the new law. With a sense of cooperation, and a commitment to even greater investments, we can enjoy the economic vitality, mobility, safety and quality of life that a world-class transportation system provides, and that New York citizens deserve.

Michael Sweeney, PE, is Northeast Division president and New York metro district leader for HNTB Corp., an employee-owned infrastructure solutions firm serving public and private owners and contractors.