Transportation Bills Move Through Congress

by Leslie Wollack

In a whirlwind of activity, House and Senate leaders are removing barriers to the adoption of a long-term authorization of the federal transportation program and will bring two very different pieces of legislation to their respective chambers next week. The debate will include differences in funding sources for federal transit, highway and bridge programs, duration of the program and major policy differences. 

Lawmakers face a looming deadline of March 31 - when the current program expires - amid news from the Congressional Budget Office last week that current transportation revenues will run out soon. 

H.R. 7, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012, is scheduled for debate on the House floor next week under a rule limiting amendments that may be offered. The five-year, $260 billion bill was adopted on a mostly party-line vote after an 18-hour session of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

A few hours later, the House Ways and Means Committee, responsible for the funding portion of the bill, voted for a radical shift in financing for public transportation programs, strongly opposed by more than 600 groups, including NLC. The bill adopted by the Ways and Means Committee would end the transfer of federal fuel taxes to a mass transit account and force transit to be funded by the regular appropriations process after a one-time transfer of $40 billion in general revenues to fund public transportation for urban and rural areas and the Congestion Management Air Quality program.

Amendments to H.R. 7 during committee action included an amendment to strip a change that would have allowed greatly increased truck weights on portions of the Interstate system, rejection of an amendment to reinstate a set-aside for local transportation enhancements projects, discussion of funding for Amtrak and prohibiting funding for high speed rail in California. 

House leadership has combined H.R. 7, the financing portion adopted by the Ways and Means Committee, and bills adopted by the House Natural Resources Committee to expand oil shale and off-shore drilling and use those revenues to finance the transportation programs. The combined bill will go to the full House this week. 

The Senate began procedural votes on Thursday to move its version of the surface transportation authorization, S. 1813, after the Senate Finance Committee approved the last piece of the bill on Tuesday. 

The Senate's two-year bill provides full funding of federal transportation programs, including $13 billion in additional funding above federal transportation revenues in the Highway Trust Fund. The committee also added a provision to keep transit commuting benefits equal to parking benefits that expired at the end of last year. 

While lawmakers have worked at lightning speed to move legislation through their respective houses, the path forward remains unclear. Although the Senate has enjoyed mostly bipartisan support in the four committees that have jurisdiction over the bill, strong policy disputes continue when floor debate begins.

The House has had a much more partisan debate over its bill and it is unclear whether the leadership will have the support of many of the newly elected members that came to Congress opposing federal spending.

Details: Continue to check the NLC website for the latest news and information.