Geo Week News

August 15, 2012

What the Highway Bill means to you

Recently passed legislation means new business for geospatial community

WASHINGTON – When the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” (referred to often as the Highway Bill) passed on July 6, it drew national attention mostly because its passage meant that student loan interest rates wouldn’t double as previously scheduled.

Great news for just about everyone who graduated in the last 20 years.

However, the geospatial community also got a boon with the Act’s passage, as it also included new lawmaking for federal highways and new directives for FEMA and the use of Gulf Oil Spill money that will mean significant new business for those in surveying, laser scanning, and other positional professions.

“We can’t really put a number figure on it right now,” said Nick Palatiello, assistant executive director for external affairs at MAPPS, which lobbied extensively on behalf of the geospatial community in regard to the bills. But “it begins to have an impact immediately.”

Maybe the biggest impact will be created by the change of a single word. Where federal law previously said that states “may” use the private sector for surveying and mapping purposes, it now says that states “shall” use the private sector, and new language is also included for enforcement of that provision.

“Now the Federal Highway Administration can keep the states’ feet to the fire,” said John Palatiello, MAPPS executive director. This could have a major impact on the way that state DoTs operate.

Further, the bill maintains highway funding through 2014, which is the first time in a number of years that states have had the ability to plan with confidence more than just a few months in advance. Alongside that, a number of regulations in regard to environmental review have been streamlined so that projects should be able to go from the design to construction phase much more quickly.

Perhaps most intriguing in the highways portion of the Act is the significant section endorsing intelligent transportation systems, or what’s known as ITS. From development of systems to support autonomous vehicles to signage with real-time traffic updates to support for in-dahs systems, ITS is very likely to require accurate geospatial data to function properly.

And that’s just the highways portion of the Act.

The National Flood Insurance Reform Program (which is administered by FEMA) was also wrapped up in the Act passed July 6, and it should lead to significant government investment in airborne lidar, especially. It includes directives to make sure National Flood Insurance Program rate maps use “the most accurate topography and elevation data available” and that FEMA assess the accuracy of current ground elevation data used for hydrologic and hydraulic modeling of flooding sources and mapping of the flood hazard and “wherever necessary acquire new ground elevation data utilizing the most up-to-date geospatial technologies in accordance with guidelines and specifications of FEMA.”

For getting accurate elevation data, “lidar is the best way to go,” said Nick Palatiello, “as far as from what we’ve heard from our members.”

Finally, in an initiative John Palatiello called “unprecedented in the geospatial world,” Congress has ordered FEMA to work with the USGS, the OMB, and other government agencies to essentially create a pool of money that will be dedicated to 3D data acquisition.

“We know FEMA needs this data,” said John Palatiello, “but other agencies need this data as well, and given the way Congress operates with allocation levels and budget scoring and all these other crazy things, it wasn’t politically feasible to fund the entirety of the program through FEMA, so they said, ‘let’s come up with a way of spreading the budget among all the folks who are going to be the beneficiaries and are going to have a need for the data.’ We’ve been working with the USGS about strategies on how to pursue this, and if you look at things like how they’ve gone about gathering imagery for the nation in the past, this is a real shot in the arm. This is much more feasible.”

Just about all of these initiatives regarding the Flood Insurance Program were initiated by MAPPS after they convened a task force some seven or eight years ago.

“FEMA was fully aware of what we were advocating,” said John Palatiello. “They might not have agreed with all of it, but they understood where we were coming from … And an extraordinary number of our recommendations made it into the bill.”

MAPPS credits Congressman John Mica, chair of the House Transportation Committee, with shepherding the important pieces of the Highway Bill through the massive compromise session that was necessary to make the House bill jibe with the Senate bill. Congressman Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee, Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Senator Boxer of California also “rolled up their sleeves” in getting the legislation passed, the Palatiellos said.

“And Speaker [John] Boehner stepped in,” said John Palatiello, “and said, ‘Go do this. I want to make sure we have a bill this year.’ He put the pressure on, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. He put his stamp on the desire to get a bill passed.”

For MAPPS’ full breakdown of the major changes enacted that benefit the geospatial committee, click here for a downloadable pdf.

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