Senate to Continue Debate on Transportation Bill

March 5, 2012
by Leslie Wollack

The Senate will begin debate in earnest this week on S. 1813, a two-year, $109 billion transportation authorization bill providing funding for federal highway, bridge and transit programs after clearing controversial, non-related amendments last week. 

Senate leadership has not indicated how it will proceed on the 220 amendments more germane to the transportation debate, including one on eminent domain (see related story). 

Local officials are encouraged to contact their Senators to support the following NLC-backed amendments:

• Begich: to restore the local funding share under the Transportation Mobility Program, the new name given to the Surface Transportation Program; 

• Casey-Blunt: to provide a dedicated funding for off-system bridges;

• Sheehen, et al: to maintain the current threshold for remaining a Metropolitan Planning Organization; and 

• Cochran-Cardin: to give increased decision-making authority and control to local governments to fund important transportation projects. 

See the NLC website for the latest information. 

As Nation's Cities Weekly went to press, it is still unclear what direction the House will take after the leadership was forced to pull back on H.R. 7, a five-year authorization that drew criticism from both sides of the aisle. For many Republicans, the $260 billion price tag was too high, while Democrats opposed efforts to change the funding for mass transit from a dedicated revenue source to regular appropriations. 

With the current extension of federal transportation programs set to expire on March 31, it is virtually impossible now for Congress to adopt individual bills and then find a consensus in time for the impending deadline. 

Other Transportation News

While Congress wrestles with a surface transportation program to meet current and future needs, legislators also turned attention to other parts of the national transportation network. 

At a recent briefing sponsored by the Congressional Bicameral High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Caucus, state transportation officials from Washington, North Carolina, Connecticut and Michigan joined Amtrak to highlight the $10 billion federal investment in passenger rail in 32 states, which is paying off in improved service, safety improvements, job creation, enhanced mobility and preparing for future enhanced mobility. 

The state officials noted that increased ridership on passenger routes throughout the nation has taken some of the traffic off heavily traveled corridors, in addition to creating jobs. The opportunity to build an American rail manufacturing base and the value of refurbished stations in generating economic activity create a strong argument for today's investment in tomorrow's economic growth, they said.

In North Carolina, officials are working to extend the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor Amtrak passenger rail lines into South Carolina and Georgia. The Northeast Corridor links major metropolitan areas into New England and Canada. 

The officials touted the benefits of federal investment in rail. Since its inception, the HSIPR Caucus has focused on enhancing support for federal investment in rail and the benefits of providing federal funds for state rail programs through the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, or PRIIA (P.L. 110-432). 

Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.), former Los Angeles councilmember and member of NLC's Transportation and Infrastructure Services Committee, kicked off a new Congressional Ports Caucus with Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) devoted to coordinating federal activities in support the nation's ports. U.S. ports support 13.3 million jobs and account for $3.15 trillion in business activity to the economy.

Noting that "every congressional district in the country is dependent" on the goods brought in through U.S. ports, Rep. Hahn said, this caucus is intended to "do something important to secure the future and viability of our nation's ports." 

Caucus members noted the importance of ports to small businesses, the value of exports to communities large and small across the U.S. and the land and waterside policy issues. They challenged Congress to ensure that freight issues are addressed as Congress considered federal surface transportation policy.