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House transportation bill’s prospects appear to be stalling out

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
March 02, 2012

If you thought that getting a new federal transportation bill in place would be an easy and fluid process, think again. Any assumptions that meaningful progress would be occurring at this point is pretty much a pipe dream.

When the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee rolled out the American Energy and Infrastructure Act in late January, it was clear that the Committee had put a lot of effort and preparation into this legislation.

The five-year, $260 billion bill spearheaded by House T&I Committee Chair John Mica (R-Fla.) is calling for funding for the highway, transit, and highway safety programs at levels consistent with the amount of revenue being deposited into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), whose revenues are derived from the federal gasoline tax—which has not increased since 1993.
The bill’s chief objectives include:
-authorizing approximately $260 billion over five years to fund federal highway, transit and safety programs, consistent with current funding levels;
- providing long-term stability for states to undertake major infrastructure projects;
-containing no earmarks, compared to the previous transportation law which contained over 6,300 earmarks;
- consolidating or eliminating nearly 70 federal programs
-calling for the funds collected for the improvement of the nation’s harbors to be invested for that purpose;
-eliminating mandates that states spend highway funding on non-highway activities;
-allowing states to set their own transportation priorities; and
-encouraging states to partner with the private sector to finance and build projects, among others.

From a freight perspective, the bill is calling on the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with interested public and private sector freight stakeholders, including representatives of ports, shippers, carriers, freight-related associations, state transportation departments, and local governments to develop a 5-year National Freight Policy.

This policy would specify goals, objectives, and milestones with respect to the expansion of freight transportation capacity and improving freight transportation infrastructure, as well as investing in freight transportation infrastructure to boost economic competitiveness, reduce congestion, increase productivity, improve and maintain existing transportation infrastructure so that it meets appropriate standards and improve its capacity to meet future demand. The policy also calls for increasing the usage and number of strategically-located multi-modal freight transportation facilities to reduce highway-related congestion and emissions.

But expectations for a new bill to be signed into law before March 31, when the eighth (yes, eighth) continuing resolution—or extension—expires were slim from the outset for a whole host of reasons, including length of the bill, how it is being paid for and who is paying for it, and, of course, political dysfunction.

That last part takes us to reports out of Washington this week, which are indicting that there are not nearly enough House votes to advance this bill and that the House is now angling for an 18-month bill. But guess what? The House is not crazy about that either.

As a point of comparison, the Senate has proposed a 2-year, $109 billion bill, MAP-21, which was recently signed off on by an 85-11 vote in early February.

But back to the House. A report from the Transportation Nation blog quoted House Speaker John Boehner as saying the 18-month option was falling flat with members of Congress, adding that he “would only think of it as a fall-back measure.”

The report said that the 18-month bill would reauthorize the Highway Trust Fund into the middle of next year and reconnect federal transit funding to the HTF, with the disconnecting of the two proving to be a major sticking point in the five-year bill.  And another sticking point noted in the report is that the 18-month bill would take about $40 billion from new cuts to federal worker pensions, which would not please Democrats as that is much more than the $10 billion estimated gap in the bill for the HTF.

A Politico report said that the shorter, 18-month bill would likely come in below the Senate’s $109 billion bill, retain project streamlining provisions and a link to domestic energy production.

So with the calendar telling us it is March 2, time is running out for either a new bill of which there is basically nil chance of happening at this point. That said, odds are high we are closing in on the ninth continuing resolution, which brings us back to where we already are in terms of getting somewhere—which appears to be nowhere.

The premise that “nothing” gets done in an election year is prevalent and has been over the years. But SAFETEA-LU expired more than 2 years ago; those were not election years and not enough happened then either. 

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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