‘America is One Big Pothole’

Tenth extension of transportation bill OK’d; states seek stability of long-term funding

picture2The federal transportation bill is being held hostage by the 2012 elections. Or at least that’s the opinion of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. And the result, he says, is that America is “one big pothole.”

While state and local governments await passage of a new federal transportation bill, the House once again failed to pass its sweeping five-year, $260 billion transportation legislation. Instead, for the 10th time since the Surface Transportation Bill expired two years ago, yet another short-term extension has been approved.

State and local government officials were hopeful to have a long-term bill in place by the end of the congressional session so the funding will be assured through the upcoming summer construction period. States are also looking to see if a provision that gives them more flexibility in how they spend federal transportation funds stays in the bill.

Long seen as a jobs creation bill, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia said a long-term transportation bill would give states more stability and encourage them to invest in transportation projects knowing the funding is in place for the long haul. He said it would also “provide the certainty that highway and transit contractors desperately need to give them the confidence to hire that one more worker.”

Since the bill expired two years ago, the House and Senate have not been able to settle their differences – with the Senate proposing a two-year, $109 billion piece of legislation to the House’s five-year proposal. Officials were hoping for a multi-year plan that would stop the seemingly endless extensions. The last multi-year bill was a $286 billion piece of legislation that expired in 2009.

Before the Easter break, Congress approved a last-minute, 90-day extension of the Surface Transportation Act. Without that extension, the program would have expired on March 31. This week’s action would extend the provisions of the program until the end of September.

But this time, House members indicate the extension is the first step toward real debate on a multi-year, long-term transportation bill. The Senate has already passed its version of a bill and members from both the House and Senate are apparently headed toward a conference committee to try to hammer out their differences.

With only 30 days left before the current congressional session ends, passage of a multi-year bill looks doubtful. But the extension at least gives the House and Senate until the end of the fiscal year in September to negotiate a true bill instead of another extension.

Senate leaders already have pledged to appoint Senate conferees quickly and are hopeful the House will do the same.

There are likely to be some contentious elements of the bill that could slow things down. The House extension includes authorization of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which the president opposes and vowed to veto. In addition, the two sides are at odds over funding for the bill. While both chambers want to keep transportation funding at its current levels, the Highway Trust Fund alone will not generate that much funding. So another sticking point will be where additional revenues can be found. While an increase in the fuel tax could help bridge the gap, the House instead favors fees on new oil and gas drilling and the Senate has proposed funding transfers and offsets.


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