Senate Approves Long-Awaited Transportation Bill: What it Could Mean for States

The U.S. Senate Wednesday passed a long-awaited, 18-month, bipartisan, $109 billion bill to authorize federal surface transportation programs on a vote of 74 to 22. Attention now turns to the House, where leaders could decide to take up the Senate measure or seek to resurrect their own five-year, $260 billion plan that has so far failed to win the same level of support. Meanwhile the March 31st deadline when the latest SAFETEA-LU extension expires looms large and many believe another short-term extension will be needed to give time for the House to act and for lawmakers to work out details of a final bill. But, as U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Congressional committee today, that scenario is complicated by the start of the road construction season when states must have some certainty that the money will be there to pay road contractors over the next several months and beyond. Still, despite the challenges ahead and the Senate bill’s shortcomings, many are praising both its passage and its provisions, many of which could have a huge impact for state governments for years to come. Here are some notable elements of the legislation.

  • It would sustain highway and transit funding at current levels, which in 2012 has come to constitute progress even though numerous experts have said substantially more is needed to shore up the nation’s infrastructure than what has been spent in recent years.
  • It would maintain those current levels by supplementing dwindling Highway Trust Fund dollars with funds from a series of tax changes, transfers, offsets and program cuts (or “budget gimmicks” as some have referred to them) expected to accrue over the course of a decade. But the legislation sidesteps the fundamental question of how to pay for transportation going forward given the unsustainability of the gas tax (which supports the HTF) due to increased fuel efficiency and other factors. Final passage of the bill would still entail depletion of the trust fund and do little to ensure its long term future. Others are concerned about those “budget gimmicks” that made the bill’s funding level possible. As Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee put it: “Passing a bill that spends money over 18 months and tries to recoup it over a 10-year period is a road to insolvency.”
  • By authorizing surface transportation programs for 18 months, it would provide states a greater degree of funding certainty, allowing them to move forward with more long-term projects. But some have argued that 18 months amounts to little more than a glorified extension and won’t provide nearly as much certainty as previous five- and six-year authorization bills have. It wouldn’t be long before lawmakers would have to face all the same issues all over again.
  • Streamlining project delivery is a key goal of the legislation’s reform measures. State governments will likely approve of provisions that would allow them to expand the use of innovative contracting methods, complete right-of-way acquisitions earlier, reduce bureaucratic hurdles for projects with no significant environmental impact and other key reforms expected to help speed transportation projects that can sometimes take years to complete.
  • National transportation goals and performance measures are also a focus. States and metro areas would be required to use performance measures in long-range planning and short-term programming processes to track progress in reducing congestion, improving road conditions, reducing environmental impacts, improving freight mobility, increasing transit access and reducing traffic fatalities.
  • It would consolidate the number of programs under SAFETEA-LU and broaden program eligibility, which should give states greater flexibility to fund projects and programs as they see fit.

Amendments of Note for States

The Senate ultimately considered about 30 amendments to the transportation bill, many of which were noteworthy for state governments. Among those approved:

  • An amendment to provide local communities and metropolitan regions access to a pot of funding called “Additional Activities” through a competitive grant program which could be used to revitalize main streets, provide new bike facilities and make streets safer.
  • An amendment that would help provide adequate funding and flexibility to states to repair and rehabilitate the 180,000 federal-aid bridges not on the National Highway System.
  • An amendment to require states to dedicate a specific percentage of their highway funds to repairing bridges that are not on the National Highway System and also not located on a Federal-aid highway.
  • An amendment to protect metropolitan planning organizations from financial penalties when states don’t meet their state requirements for fixing roads and bridges or developing a highway safety plan.
  • An amendment that would reduce the amount of Federal highway money states receive each year to account for roads that have been privatized.

A number of other amendments of note were either defeated or withdrawn. They included:

  • An amendment that would have transferred most responsibility for surface transportation to states and removed many regulatory requirements. It would have reduced the core Federal programs down to Interstate maintenance, transportation research and safety and it would have ended all dedicated funding for transit programs. The amendment, offered by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, was defeated.
  • An amendment that would have allowed states to get back only what they put into the Highway Trust Fund in a given fiscal year, limiting the ability of the federal program to shift revenues based on regional or national purposes. That amendment, offered by Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, was also defeated.
  • An amendment offered by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman would have allowed states to keep their gas taxes and be able to “opt-out” of the federal program entirely. Transportation projects in states opting out would have not been subject to Federal highway, transit and related environmental regulations. It too was defeated.
  • Another Portman amendment that would have allowed states to permit any non-highway use in any rest area along any highway, including any commercial activity that does not impair the highway or interfere with its full use and safety. It failed.
  • Two competing tolling measures that were both withdrawn, with the understanding that the issue could be taken up in future highway legislation. One by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison would have reduced the ability of states to apply to the U.S. Department of Transportation for authority to toll certain Federal-aid highways. The other, from Sen. Tom Carper, would have done the opposite—expanding the ability of states to apply for authority to toll certain Federal-aid highways, with proceeds available for investments along the corridor.

Transportation for America has a complete rundown of all the amendments considered, here.