With Congress in Gridlock, Transportation Authorization in Limbo

With different parties controlling the House of Representatives and Senate, gridlock has been a prominent theme in the 112th Congress. The federal government nearly shut down earlier this year, the annual appropriations bills are barely creeping along and the debate over the debt ceiling has consumed most of the legislative agenda. Unfortunately, this means many important federal items due for reauthorization, like a multi-year transportation bill, face a very uncertain fate.

Congress has not passed a long-term Transportation Authorization Bill since 2005. The bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, expired in October 2009, and since then most federal transportation programs have been funded through short-term extensions of the 2005 law. The most recent short-term extension was signed into law March 4, and it extends funding through the end of the fiscal year. At that point, Congress will need to act.

Two very different proposals are being floated in the House and Senate. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica released a 17-page proposal July 7 outlining the main principles that will be contained in his bill. Mica calls for a long-term, six-year authorization of roughly $230 billion in expenditures. This price tag, extremely low by historical standards, is directly tied to the amount of revenue anticipated to be received through the Highway Trust Fund via the federal excise tax on gasoline. Concerns about the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund have existed for some time, but Mica's proposal aims to, in his words, "maintain the long-term viability of the Highway Trust Fund and ensure that the federal government stops spending money it does not have."

Other highlights of Mica's proposal include condensing environmental impact statements in an effort to streamline project delivery, giving states greater flexibility to toll non-interstate highways, and providing incentives to states to create state infrastructure banks.

The Senate is taking a far different approach. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer has rejected the idea of a six-year bill at the funding level Mica proposed. Though she has not released a formal proposal, Boxer has signaled that she prefers a two-year bill funded at $109 billion in expenditures. This amount is expected to exceed Highway Trust Fund revenues, making additional offsets necessary. While contingent on what those offsets turn out to be, it seems that Boxer's proposal has tentative bipartisan support.

The White House has stayed out of the debate over transportation reauthorization, though the administration has signaled support for a two-year funding bill similar to the Senate plan. The administration also has endorsed the idea of infrastructure banks at the federal level. Thirty-two states and Puerto Rico have experience with these banks, a type of revolving infrastructure investment fund for surface transportation projects.

With such a deep divide between the House and Senate transportation funding proposals, predicting how a final bill will look is difficult. On top of that, the new budget rules passed by the House this year and the Senate's snail-like pace on all things legislative leaves little room for compromise. One thing is clear, though. The days of including earmarks for specific transportation projects in a reauthorization bill are gone. While this will ultimately mean a cleaner final bill, it may make getting to the final stages of passage a lot more difficult for Congressional negotiators. 

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