Congress Begins Tough Negotiations on Transportation Programs

by Leslie Wollack 

Lawmakers appointed to resolve differences on a new federal surface transportation program met last week to stake out their opening positions, but gave no indication of a quick resolution of the deep divisions between the House and Senate positions. 

Sitting around a large hollow square table, the 47 members appointed by House and Senate leaders to negotiate a long-term national program for funding highway, bridge and transit programs highlighted some of the key issues that have held up agreement on this issue since the original program expired in September 2009. 

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and chair of the transportation conference, pointed out that the Senate had passed a bipartisan bill, S 1813, with 74 votes. "If Sens. Boxer and Jim Inhofe can agree on a bill, we can all agree on a bill," Boxer said, noting the improbability of finding a solution appealing to a liberal Democrat from California and a conservative Republican from Oklahoma. 

Although the House bill only included a 90-day extension of the current program, from June 30 to September 30, and three controversial provisions, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) indicated the House conferees were not ready to compromise and adopt the Senate bill. 

Mica expressed concern over the cost and financing of the $109 billion, two-year Senate bill. Congress will have to fund a new transportation program without raising taxes, Mica told the conferees. "Anyone who wants to raise taxes, you're on the wrong committee," he said. 

Although the House Rules Committee adopted a robust authorization bill, HR 7, House leaders were unable to gain consensus among House Republicans to support their five-year authorization bill and never brought it to the House floor for a vote. It is unclear how the conference will proceed and whether House conferees will insist on policy language contained in HR 7 but never voted on by the full House. 

For local governments, there are many key policy provisions in the massive Senate bill and in any potential House language that might come before the conference committee. Local officials are encouraged to contact their Congressional representatives, particularly those who serve on the conference committee, to urge a bipartisan agreement on a long-term transportation bill. Key issues that will be discussed include supporting local government authority and maintaining funding for public transit. 

Local officials also are very concerned over the proposed changes in local planning provisions and the share of funding that would be distributed to communities. NLC urges support for current law to maintain the current threshold of 50,000 in population for remaining a Metropolitan Planning Organization and the current share of funding for metropolitan areas at 62.5 percent rather than the 50 percent that is proposed in S 1813 or MAP-21. 

NLC supports a provision adopted during Senate debate that would provide a 15 percent share of funding for local bridges from the overall funding for states. 

NLC supports the "additional activities" contained in the Senate bill that would help revitalize Main Streets, make streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists and allow local governments direct access for communities to these funds. 

Another key concern for local officials will be project streamlining provisions to speed up project reviews since both the House passed bill and S 1813 contain streamlining provisions. NLC supports streamlining environmental reviews which maintain local control in the process. The Senate bill would streamline some environmental review provisions but still ensure public and local officials a meaningful voice on projects that impact communities. The House bill would limit opportunity for local review. 

It is unclear when and how conferees will be able to find consensus but Chairs Boxer and Mica expressed confidence that an agreement will be reached. Congress has until June 30 when the current extension expires. 

Details: To view a list of members of the conference committee, please visit /influence-federal-policy/advocacy/legislative-advocacy/update-on-transportation-reauthorization  .