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Reports suggest an agreement on transportation bill may be near

By Staff
June 27, 2012

Various media reports are indicating at this time that Congress has reached agreement on a broad outline on a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill.

This news follows weeks of acrimonious negotiations between the House and Senate, which suggested that talks would not advance to this level and that a tenth continuing resolution—to keep funding at current levels—would be introduced prior to the current one expiring at the end of June.

The Wall Street Journal reported that this bill would not include language forcing the White House to act on an extension of the Keystone oil and natural gas pipeline that would run from Canada through Midwestern states, which House Republicans have been clamoring for. And the report add that in exchange Democrats have agreed to include language that would shorten the approval process for new transportation projects, largely by limiting environmental reviews currently required by law.

House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee officials said that the tentative agreement establishes federal highway, transit and highway safety policy and keeps programs at current funding levels through the end of fiscal year 2014.  They added that unlike the last transportation bill, which contained over 6,300 earmarks, this bill doesn’t include any earmarks and does not increase taxes. 

“The Highway Trust Fund is going bankrupt, and this paid-for measure provides necessary, real reform that focuses our limited resources on critical infrastructure needs,” said House T&I Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) in a statement. “This legislation is specifically designed to reform and consolidate our transportation programs, streamline the bureaucratic project process, and give states more flexibility to save taxpayers’ hard-earned money.”

Earlier this year, the Senate EPW Committee passed a two-year, $109 billion bill entitled Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, while the House’s efforts stalled out. Both parties have been in conference for the last four weeks to hash out their differences to come up with a bipartisan bill, but progress appears to be minimal to date.
MAP-21 is comprised of various freight- and supply chain-related components, including:
-a National Freight Network Program that provides formula funds to states for projects to improve the movement of freight on highways, including freight intermodal connectors; and
-a Transportation Mobility Program that replaces the current Surface Transportation Program but retains the same structure, goals, and flexibility to allow states and metropolitan areas to invest in projects fitting their needs and priorities, as well as provide a broad eligibility of surface transportation projects that can be constructed, among other components.
If a bill is approved by Congress, it would be funded by the federal gasoline tax. But that could prove to be challenging.

The Highway Trust Fund, which is primarily comprised of gasoline tax revenue, collected $36.9 billion in taxes and interest in 2011, while it sent out $44.3 billion in payments, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. Some $36.7 billion went to highways and $7.6 billion to mass transit.
 
The balance of the trust fund was expected to be $5.5 billion by Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2012, compared with $14.3 billion in 2011, according to a March CBO estimate. The main funding mechanism is the federal tax on motor fuels – 18.4 cents on gasoline, 23.4 cents on diesel – which has been unchanged since 1993. There is no appetite on either side of the aisle to raise those taxes in an election year.

An Associated Press report stated Senate aides said they were working today to put the agreement into legislative language, which needs to occur before House and Senate leaders formally approve it.

House T&I Committee officials said if a majority of House and Senate conferees approve the conference report, both bodies are then expected to take up the measure before the end of the week, prior to the expiration of the current extension of transportation funding on June 30th. 

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