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Monday, August 6, 2012

Federalism Issues in Surface Transportation Policy: Past and Present

Robert Jay Dilger
Senior Specialist in American National Government

P.L. 112-141, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), was passed by the House and Senate on June 29, 2012, and signed into law by President Obama on July 6, 2012. It reauthorizes federal highway and mass transit programs through the end of FY2014 (27 months) and authorizes to be appropriated $105.2 billion for these programs in FY2013 and FY2014 (about $118 billion including already appropriated funding for FY2012). MAP-21 follows 10 short-term reauthorizations of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA; P.L. 109-59), and lengthy consideration of federalism issues in surface transportation policy.

Although the federal presence, and influence, over surface transportation policy remains significant, MAP-21 represents a continuation of previous reauthorizations’ emphasis on increasing the decision-making authority of state governments. For example, MAP-21 provides states greater flexibility in the use of federal highway assistance by eliminating 60 federal highway programs, a two-thirds reduction. While many existing federal highway programs are discontinued as separate entities, states are authorized, but not required, to spend their federal highway funds for many of the same purposes. MAP-21 also made several changes to the project delivery approval process in an effort to reduce the anticipated average project delivery time for highway and mass transit construction projects. It also provides states additional flexibility by expanding the activities eligible for funds set-aside for non-highway related enhancements, such as landscaping, environmental mitigation, conversion of rails to trails, bikeways, and historic preservation. States were also provided expanded authority to transfer a portion of those funds, under specified circumstances, to other federal highway and safety programs.

For many years, state and local government officials, through their public interest groups (especially the National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials), have lobbied for increased federal assistance for surface transportation grants and increased flexibility in the use of those funds. They argue that they are better able to identify surface transportation needs in their states than federal officials and are capable of administering federal grant funds with relatively minimal federal oversight. They also argue that states have a long history of learning from one another. In their view, providing states added flexibility in the use of federal funds results in better surface transportation policy because it enables states to experiment with innovative solutions to surface transportation problems and then share their experiences with other states.

Others argue that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that federal funds are used in the most efficient and effective manner possible to promote the national interest in expanding national economic growth and protecting the environment. In their view, providing states increased flexibility in the use of federal funds diminishes the federal government’s ability to ensure that national needs are met. Still others have argued for a fundamental restructuring of federal and state government responsibilities in surface transportation policy, with some responsibilities devolved to states and others remaining with the federal government.

This report provides an historical perspective on contemporary federalism issues in surface transportation policy and examines some of the key provisions in MAP-21, focusing on those provisions that are most likely to affect federalism relationships in surface transportation policy.

Date of Report: July 27, 2012
Number of Pages: 45
Order Number: R40431
Price: $29.95

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.

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