House Passes Another 90-Day Transportation Extension

by Leslie Wollack

Last week, the House approved another 90-day extension for federal surface transportation programs that included construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, setting up a conflict with the Senate. The extension through September 30, adopted in a 293-127 vote, will allow the House to begin negotiations with the Senate on S.1813, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), a two-year, $109-billion transportation program bill passed last month.

NLC released a statement last week calling on Congress to pass a long-term transportation bill.

"We urge Congress to remember the words of past presidents and take action to reach a bipartisan agreement on a long-term transportation solution," said NLC President Ted Ellis, mayor of Bluffton, Ind. "We need Congress to make investments in our future now. A national infrastructure bill will help cities start needed projects that would put people back to work immediately, while laying the foundation for future economic growth and competitiveness."

The current extension signed by President Obama would fund programs until June 30, the ninth short-term extension since the program expired in September 2009. Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a statement that she was encouraged by the House action and called on the House to quickly appoint conferees in order to get a bill to the President soon.

"I have spoken to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and he has committed to appoint Senate conferees as soon as Senate rules allow," Sen. Boxer said. "The final bill must be truly bipartisan so it can pass both Houses of Congress. The economic recovery really depends on our bipartisan action, because the transportation and construction sectors have such a huge impact on the nation's economy."

The House action is the latest in a series of attempts by the leadership to find sufficient votes to pass a fully funded transportation bill with gas tax revenue not meeting current spending levels. House Republicans initially tried to cut transportation programs by 34 percent to ensure that revenues were adequate to meet spending levels. In February, the House was poised to take up H.R. 7, a five-year, $260-billion transportation bill to be funded through expanded oil and gas exploration revenues. The bill also would have severed transit from its current dedicated revenue source, the federal gasoline tax, relegating it to the regular appropriations process.

An outcry from transportation advocates, including NLC and Republicans from suburban districts heavily dependent on transit use, forced the House leadership to back down from that approach, which has been a federal practice initiated by President Ronald Reagan.

The newest bill adopted by the House last week is not a "clean" extension since it adds on the Keystone pipeline, previously rejected by the Senate during the vote on S. 1813.

House transportation leaders called their bill an effort to move the process forward and suggested that this approach would allow House and Senate conferees to come together to pass a longer term transportation bill funding federal bridge, highway and transit projects.

MAP-21 passed the Senate on March 14 by a vote of 74-22. The bill would consolidate or eliminate dozens of transportation programs and give greater discretion to state departments of transportation on how to set spending priorities. The bill also allows the Secretary of Transportation to decertify Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) between 50,000 and 250,000 in population.

The bipartisan Senate bill contains several provisions supported by NLC, including an amendment restoring funding for off-system bridges, a program contained in federal transportation programs since 1978. The successful amendment by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.), would restore the required set-aside of 15 percent of bridge funding to be spent on these programs aiding locally owned bridges.

An amendment offered by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and other senators to make it easier for MPOs between 50,000 and 200,000 to remain MPOs was added to a manager's amendment adopted on the Senate floor. An additional amendment by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to provide local government funding for alternative transportation projects was also accepted as part of the manager's amendment to the bill.

Majority Leader Reid promised to quickly appoint conferees on the 90-day extension. The differences in approaches between the House extension of the current program and the many policy changes included in the Senate bill set the stage for a contentious and highly political debate on the future of federal transportation programs.

Local governments provide a third of the funding for transportation infrastructure, with another third provided by the states and the final third by the federal government. Federal transportation revenues continue to decline as Americans are driving less and adopting more fuel-efficient vehicles. In the long term, Congress will need to address the increasing shortfall between federal investments in a national transportation network and revenues available from the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents, which has been static since 1998. In the meantime, cities across the country have been seeking additional ways to fund critical infrastructure projects.