Senate Appears Poised to Act on Highway Bill After Recess; Federal Gas Tax Renewal Could Face a Battle

With the debt deal behind them and the Federal Aviation Administration at least temporarily reopened, members of Congress left on their annual month-long summer recess this week. When they return, only 24 days will remain until September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year when both the latest extension of SAFETEA-LU and most of the federal gas tax are due to expire. Some believe renewal of the gas tax could face opposition in Congress. Meanwhile, Senate leaders say the body could act on a successor to SAFETEA-LU after the break, as reports surfaced that Sen. Max Baucus has come up with a way to bridge the $12 billion funding gap between how much is in the Highway Trust Fund and how much the Senate’s two-year reauthorization measure proposes to spend. And state officials are pondering what the debt deal could mean for transportation. Plus, items of note on public-private partnerships, high-speed rail, tolling, motorcycle helmet laws and other issues.

The Senate’s Reauthorization Plans

Reuters reported this week that the Senate could act on a new highway bill after the break.

“We have a highway bill that’s due,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday. “I’ve spoken to the chairman of the Finance Committee today. There are ways we can fund that.”

Aides to Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus reportedly confirmed that he has a plan to raise the $12 billion to fill the funding gap, although no details were released. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has proposed a two-year, $109 billion dollar bill. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica meanwhile has proposed a six-year bill with lower funding levels that relies solely on available Highway Trust Fund revenues.

Meanwhile, a group of 14 Republican Senators have introduced a bill, S. 1446, which would allow states to opt out of the federal highway and transit programs.

“For too long, Indiana has been a donor state and sent more gas tax dollars to Washington than it has received back,” said Indiana Sen. Dan Coats in a statement.

There is a similar measure pending in the House (HR 1585).

Federal Gas Tax Expiration

Last week, I blogged about the pending Sept. 30 expiration of all but 4 cents of the federal gas tax, which is used to maintain the nation’s highways. There is more this week on how difficult it may be to renew it. Politico’s Byron Tau and Ben Smith write that “renewing the tax could be the next political controversy in an ever more deeply divided Capitol Hill.” And Steve Hargreaves of CNN Money writes that “you may want to consider investing in some good shock absorbers for your car this fall.”

Debt Deal Could Spell Transportation Cuts

With a debt ceiling increase and deficit reduction bill finally in the rearview mirror, some are already pondering what the deal could mean in terms of cuts to transportation. “There’s nothing in the legislative text that says anything specifically about transportation or the Highway Trust Fund, but it’s clear that cuts mandated in the agreement will affect all sectors,” writes Streetsblog Capitol Hill’s Tanya Snyder this week. “There are no more easy cuts left to be made in transportation.”

The Missouri News Horizon reported on how transportation officials in that state are concerned about how future cuts could jeopardize ongoing transportation projects.

Public-Private Partnerships in the News

  • The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General has issued a new report examining the benefits and disadvantages of transportation-related public-private partnerships (P3s or PPPs). The report found that although P3s can produce efficiencies in revenue generation, they are far from the silver bullet that can solve all the nation’s infrastructure woes. “We found that PPPs are not likely to significantly decrease the infrastructure funding gap because private sector investment in transportation through PPPs generally does not entail new or incremental funds,” the report said. “A PPP primarily changes the timing with which funds become available, not the amount of the funds. A PPP only provides additional funds to the extent that the private sector is willing to pay more for a project—a roadway, for example—than the public sector expects to earn from the project over time.”
  • Officials in Virginia announced last week that the state will put as much as $500 million toward a P3 to rebuild U.S. 460 to interstate quality between Suffolk and Petersburg, the Virginian-Pilot reported.. The state has already received three private proposals for the project, which Gov. Bob McDonnell says is his top transportation priority. The governor has said he hopes the project will serve as a public-private model for building roads in the commonwealth.
  • The South Bay Expressway, a San Diego-area toll road that had been operated by Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Australia, is on the verge of being sold back to the public after emerging from bankruptcy. The San Diego Association of Governments voted last week to purchase the lease on the expressway, which never attracted the traffic it was projected to. Land Line magazine and Tollroads News both have more on the story.
  • Matt Dellinger at Transportation Nation has a follow-up on a recent report that Macquarie and Cintra, operators of the Indiana Toll Road, could be in danger of default.
  • The U.S. Public Interest Research Group issued a report last month on the potential for private sector involvement in high-speed rail.

High-Speed Rail

  • Speaking of high-speed rail, the Los Angeles Times reported last week on the finding by a panel of experts that ridership and revenue projections for California’s high-speed rail project need to be more conservative.

Tolling

  • Tollroads News also reports this week that Illinois Tollway officials are proposing 90 percent toll rate hikes in support of a 15-year, $12.15 billion capital program for both road repairs and new capacity.
  • The Baltimore Sun reported that members of the Maryland Transportation Authority are considering changes to a toll increase plan in that state, which will likely delay the start date for the first increases.
  • House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica penned an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel this week that clarifies his position on banning tolling on existing interstate lanes that are currently untolled.

Traffic Safety

  • Dan Vock of Stateline reported recently on the status of state motorcycle helmet laws.

Public Transportation

Condition of Infrastructure

  • 59 deficient bridges have been repaired or replaced in Minnesota in the four years since the collapse of the Interstate 35 W Bridge, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. 75 more bridges are still scheduled for work through 2018 as part of a $2.5 billion program to deal with troubled bridges before they become safety hazards.

Bicycle and Pedestrian Funding

  • The League of American Bicyclists and the bicycling advocacy coalition America Bikes make the case for including dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian facilities in the successor to SAFETEA-LU in this white paper.

Freight

  • U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine has introduced legislation that would allow trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds to use all of the interstate highways in her state, the Morning Sentinel reports.

Land Use Planning