WASHINGTON — A Senate panel cleared legislation Wednesday overhauling federal highway programs, prompting lawmakers to talk of a looming bipartisan consensus that would end years of stalemate on repairing and expanding an aging transportation network.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, 18 members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee pushed the legislation forward for further action, even withholding amendments for now.
The two-year transportation plan was drafted by the committee's Democratic chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, and its senior Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. The bill's co-sponsors include the Senate Finance Committee's Democratic chairman, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, and its senior Republican, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, who are trying to find the money to pay for the plan.
"I don't think there is any question, if you look at the four of us, that this is the definition of bipartisan work," Vitter said. "This is a jobs bill, this is an infrastructure bill that is designed to succeed, that can succeed."
Despite last week's Senate defeat of President Barack Obama's $50 billion infrastructure jobs bill, momentum is building for congressional passage of a long-term transportation plan to repair crumbling roads and bridges, move people and freight more efficiently, and boost employment.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, recently removed a major roadblock by agreeing to support a continuation of current highway program spending levels. He said Republicans will introduce a six-year transportation plan this month, and he expects House passage before the end of the year.
The Senate bill is a significant departure from the current highway program. It aims to give states more flexibility in choosing what kinds of projects best meet their needs, while at the same time requiring that they show in a more systematic way that they are using their aid to achieve federal goals like relieving traffic congestion, reducing air pollution and keeping roads and bridges in good repair. It would eliminate or collapse 90 separate highway programs, each with its own pot of money, into about 30 mostly larger pots.
It also would increase funding for a federal transportation loan guarantee program from $122 million a year to $1 billion a year, while reducing the share of money states have to contribute to projects. The federal guarantees can reduce states' financing cost for large projects through lower interest rates. The lower rates can also attract as much as $30 in private investment for each dollar in federal aid, thus significantly increasing the overall funds available for transportation projects, supporters of the program said.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman on the House Transportation Committee, hasn't yet introduced his plan, but he has described key features that are similar to the Senate bill. For example, he has said he intends to eliminate or collapse all 108 existing federal highway and transit programs into a handful of aid programs to give states more flexibility in choosing projects. He has also said he, too, would increase the loan guarantee program to $1 billion a year and ease state contribution requirements.
"Congress is realizing we need to do something, and Republicans are realizing they can't just sit there and say no" to appeals for more spending on infrastructure to boost the economy, said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Transportation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.
Two special commissions studying transportation have warned that if the U.S. doesn't sharply increase spending to repair and improve its infrastructure, the nation will face a future of nightmarish congestion. Current transportation systems — highway, rail and aviation — won't be able to handle the projected population growth of 100 million more Americans by 2050. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highway and transit aid, is spending more money than it takes in, but the backlog of projects is still growing. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace estimates that the U.S. transportation system, excluding aviation, adds over $100 billion annually to the national deficit when deferred maintenance is counted.
John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said he's encouraged by what he's hearing from lawmakers in both parties. The association has been urging Congress to pass a bill providing long-term spending authority for highway and transit programs. The last long-term bill expired in 2009. Programs have continued to limp along under a series of short-term extensions. The current extension expires in March.
The lack of long-term funding certainty has weakened the ability of state highway departments to commit to major projects that can increase transportation capacity. Such projects usually require several years to complete. Instead, money often winds up directed to repaving and other upkeep projects
"The best jobs bill Congress could come up with right now is a long-term transportation bill," Horsley said.
Like many issues before Congress, the biggest question mark is where lawmakers will find the money to pay for the overhaul. The Senate bill, including safety and transit programs, would spend $109 billion over two years. Sponsors are still $12 billion short of the money needed to pay for it, although Baucus pledged Wednesday to somehow find the money. In the House, Republicans have discussed a six-year, $286 billion bill paid for by revenue from expanded oil and natural gas drilling. But there are serious questions whether the money could be raised before it's spent and whether federal trust fund rules might prevent relying on revenue that's not directly raised from use of roads and bridges.
"Finding the money is going to be a real challenge and presents the largest obstacle to enactment of any legislation," Schank said.
And each of the programs being eliminated or losing guaranteed funding — from Appalachian highways to covered bridges to safe routes to schools — has supporters who are already lobbying to protect their interests. In the past two months, bicycling and pedestrian groups have generated an estimated 70,000 emails to lawmakers urging that funding for their programs be retained.
"The House bill by all accounts isn't going to have a word about bike and pedestrian projects in it," said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. "We realize a lot is at stake."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press