House, Senate Committees Tackle Transportation Legislation

There was a lot of Capitol Hill activity this week on federal surface transportation authorization legislation, despite the dire predictions from some last week at the Transportation Research Board meeting (that I report about in the latest Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter) that it’s unlikely to amount to much given the politics, Congressional schedule and wide disparity between House and Senate legislation. Here’s a roundup of what’s happened this week.

The 18-Hour T&I Markup

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met Thursday for a marathon 18-hour session to mark up the 846-page H.R. 7, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act which the committee’s Republican leaders introduced earlier in the week.

Among the notable provisions in the bill:

  • It would spend about $260 billion over the next four-and-a-half years. It provides an average of $41.1 billion per year for highways and $8.4 billion for transit from the Highway Trust Fund ($2.1 billion per year would be transferred from the General Fund for transit). The bill would maintain current spending on transportation despite declining revenues from gas taxes.
  • It contains no earmarks. Politico reported this week on a legislative effort to pass a permanent earmark ban in the U.S. Senate.
  • It halts funding for high-speed passenger rail projects. An approved amendment would bar any of the $260 billion in the transportation bill from being used on the California high-speed rail project.
  • It consolidates or eliminates nearly 70 programs deemed duplicative or not in the federal interest.
  • Among the 100 amendments debated (and adopted) during the 18-hour markup was one to remove a provision in the bill that would have permitted states to allow trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds—and in some cases as much as 126,000 pounds—on interstate highways. The current limit is 80,000 pounds in most states. The new weight and length limits were opposed by several groups including a coalition that includes the Association of American Railroads. The National League of Cities wants to wait until the impacts of larger, heavier vehicles on highway costs and safety are better understood. Andrew Hermann, President of the American Society of Civil Engineers, pointed to a backlog of $70.9 billion of bridge work that the heavier trucks could make worse, The Sacramento Bee reported. CNN.com has more on the safety concerns of opponents. The amendment striking the truck weight and size increases was passed on a 33 to 22 vote.
  • The bill would give states the option of whether to spend federal funds on transportation enhancements, which include pedestrian and bike infrastructure. Groups like the League of American Bicyclists have objected to that provision along with the elimination of the Safe Routes to School program since it would mean fewer resources to build sidewalks, crosswalks and bike routes that make biking and walking safe and accessible. Supporters of the measures argue it should be up to the local community and state to decide their transportation priorities. An amendment to restore the two programs was offered during Thursday’s markup and defeated on a vote of 29 to 27. Three Republicans voted for the amendment. 
  • Reforms of the project delivery process are part of the bill, including streamlining of environmental reviews and consolidation of concurrent evaluations. It would require that environmental reviews, which can currently take up to five years, be completed in 270 days and environmental issues deemed minor could be decided on the state level. Democrats and the White House are supportive of streamlining the project approval process. But some environmental and transportation groups are criticizing the bill for imposing artificial deadlines on the environmental review process, as well as limiting public participation and judicial oversight of decision making. Bloomberg BNA has more about the issue in this article.
  • Amtrak subsidies would be cut by 25 percent.
  • The bill seeks to encourage private investment in transportation.
  • It provides $750 million per year for formula grants to states that have state infrastructure banks. It would not create a new national infrastructure bank.
  • It dramatically increases the amount of funding for the popular and oversubscribed Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan subsidies program from $122 million to $1 billion a year.
  • It would eliminate funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. The U.S. DOT just this week announced the availability of funding for transportation projects under the fourth round of the discretionary grant program.
  • It provides states with the authority to toll new lanes constructed on the Interstate Highway System but maintains the prohibition from tolling existing interstate lanes.
  • The bill would require people convicted of drunk driving to use ignition interlock devices on their cars for a year. Mothers Against Drunk Driving expressed support for provisions in the House bill this week.
  • It calls for all revenues paid in to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be used on harbor and channel dredging. Some have argued the trust fund has accrued an inaccessible $6 billion surplus that’s been used to offset deficits elsewhere in the federal budget.

Thumbs Down from LaHood

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a former Republican Congressman, told Politico this week the House T&I transportation bill is “the worst transportation bill” he’s seen in decades, the “most partisan transportation bill” he’s ever seen and “the most anti-safety bill” he’s seen.

“It hollows out our number one priority, which is safety, and frankly, it hollows out the guts of the transportation efforts that we’ve been about for the last three years,” he said in an interview with the newspaper.

Natural Resources Committee Approves Drilling Bills

The House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday passed bills (see here) that would require the Administration to move forward with new offshore energy production along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts and would open less than 3 percent of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to energy development.

But critics contend that the plan will raise only a fraction of what’s needed (earlier estimates put it at $5 billion over the next decade) and be environmentally reckless. Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), a member of the Natural Resources Committee said this week: “These giveaways to oil companies won’t rebuild our roads or fix our bridges.”

The Ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, James Inhofe (R-OK) said recently: “We need money now for transportation; we can’t afford to wait.” Inhofe has also said he doesn’t favor attaching legislation to advance the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline to the transportation bill as House Republicans want to do.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute and other groups held a news conference this week to proclaim the directing of royalty revenues from oil and gas production to the Highway Trust Fund at odds with the user-pays principle of transportation funding. Politico reported this week on the "strange bedfellows" opposing the funding of transportation with drilling. The Wall Street Journal had more Thursday on how House leaders plan to combine the transportation and energy bills.

Ways & Means Approves Transit Changes Despite Opposition

The House Ways & Means Committee met this morning and approved the draft financing proposal (H.R. 3864) for the multi-year transportation bill.  Among the provisions in the measure, it would:

  • Extend the Highway Trust Fund through October 1, 2016.
  • Extend the federal gas tax and other transportation-related taxes and fees through October 1, 2018.
  • Provide for proceeds from proposed expanded energy exploration leases (see above) to be deposited in the Highway Trust Fund.
  • Change the name of the Mass Transit Account to the Alternative Transportation Account.
  • Transfer Mass Transit Account funding for 2012 to the Highway Account.
  • Transfer $40 billion from the General Fund to the Alternative Transportation Account.
  • Maintain the roughly 80/20 funding split between highways and transit.

Stephen Lee Davis of the group Transportation for America wrote this week that the legislation threatens “to kill three decades of investments in mass transit” by ending the guarantee of dedicated funding for public transportation. AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, is among the other organizations opposing the transit changes. Streetsblog has more about the coalition of more than 600 groups expressing opposition in a letter to Ways & Means Cmte. leaders.

Senate Banking’s Transit Bill Receives Bipartisan Support

The action was not entirely on the House side this week. The Senate Banking Committee convened Thursday to consider the portion of the Senate’s two-year transportation bill that deals with transit. The measure includes some provisions long sought by transit advocates including allowing federal funds to be spent on transit operations. The bill, which is called the Federal Public Transportation Act, received unanimous bipartisan support. According to the committee’s website, it would:

  • Reauthorize federal public transportation programs at current funding levels for two fiscal years;
  • Improve the safety of public transportation systems by improving the effectiveness of federal and state oversight and requiring public transportation safety plans at transit agencies;
  • Establish a system to monitor and manage public transportation assets to improve safety and increase reliability and performance;
  • Streamline the New Starts process for transit construction to accelerate project delivery by eliminating duplicative steps and speed federal decision-making; and
  • Establish a State of Good Repair program to assist public transportation systems in addressing the backlog of maintenance needs.

Another portion of the Senate’s two-year transportation bill is expected to be considered soon by the Senate Finance Committee. So far, three of the four Senate committees that are required to consider portions of the surface transportation reauthorization legislation have now completed their work. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he intends to have the entire transportation package on the Senate floor on February 13.

Other Coverage

The Associated Press looks at many of the political issues that could derail a final transportation bill in this article.

Politico has this piece on the “uphill battle.”

The Washington Post Wonkblog has “Five transportation fights to watch in Congress.”

The Hill looks at efforts by House Democrats to change the transportation bill in Thursday’s marathon markup in the T&I committee.

The Los Angeles Times calls the T&I bill a “transportation train wreck” in an editorial today.

This week’s AASHTO Journal Weekly Transportation Report wraps up the week’s action on reauthorization bills on both sides of the Capitol.

CBO Report Highlights Urgency of Acting on Transportation Bill

A report out this month from the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the Highway Trust Fund will have just $12 billion in it at the end of the current fiscal year and be down to a $3 billion balance in FY 2013. The fund would reach zero by FY 2014 unless new revenues are found or transferred from the General Fund to shore it up. Over the past few years, $35 billion in General Fund dollars have been used to shore up the trust fund.