On pace, or out of gas?
Getting a highway bill done is a marathon, not a sprint

By David Tanner, associate editor

Just because something is “status quo” doesn’t mean it has to be dull or boring. It simply refers to the same-old, same-old that has been going on in transportation for more than two years.

Instead of creating a new highway bill that addresses the current day needs of an infrastructure system, Congress has spent the past two years simply rubber-stamping temporary extensions of SAFETEA-LU, leaving the status quo in place.

But things heated up in August and September as Congress nearly allowed the federal fuel tax, heavy equipment excise tax, tire taxes and the Heavy Vehicle Use Tax to expire.

Even though SAFETEA-LU expired in 2009, the federal government had authority to collect fuel taxes and other Highway Trust Fund taxes through Sept. 30, 2011 – plenty of time to get a new bill passed, right?

So far, it hasn’t happened. In mid-September, House and Senate leaders were on the verge of passing a six-month transportation extension lasting through March 30, 2012. It was the eighth status quo extension since SAFETEA-LU expired. The extension included provisions to extend the Highway Trust Fund and its taxes through March 30, 2012.

Then it could happen all over again.

It’s hard to believe that Congress could come so close to losing $100 million per day in revenue from fuel taxes and other fees that truckers and other drivers pay into the transportation trust.

But cooler heads seemed to have prevailed this time.

“The chances of an extension not happening are on the lower side because everyone understands they could have a lot of egg on their face if it doesn’t get done,” said Ryan Bowley, director of legislative affairs for OOIDA.

Seemingly, with the bullet dodged and a short-term extension in place lasting through the end of March, Congress continued to work on a longer plan in the form of a multiyear transportation bill to replace the status quo.

The longer-term bill is a taller task, Bowley says, given the indications by members of the House and Senate of what the longer-term bill could look like. House leaders expressed that they intend to trim spending levels by 30 percent and pass a six-year transportation bill while Senate leaders want to keep funding levels the same but limit a longer-term bill to two years.

The divide could lead to even more delays and even more temporary extensions of the status quo in the meantime.

“Getting a highway bill done is not a sprint; it’s definitely a marathon,” Bowley said.

“And we’re sort of in that stage of the race where the lead jockeys back and forth and it’s not really clear how it’s going to pan out.”

That’s why OOIDA leadership has not waded into the debate very deeply. Bowley says there just haven’t been enough details released about the long-term proposals, including what truckers could expect in safety and technological provisions in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration titles.

“Whether it’s a two-year or six-year bill, there are a lot of policy changes involved. There are a lot of details and it takes time to work out those details,” Bowley said.

“Even though an idea could look good on paper, you’ve got to understand what the impact of that would be out in the field in terms of intended consequences and unintended consequences.”

Delays are nothing new
Long-term surface transportation bills are often accompanied by delays as lawmakers debate changes to policies and funding.

Today’s status quo, SAFETEA-LU, did not take effect until 2005, about two years after work on the $286 billion bill began. Then, as is the case now, Congress passed temporary extensions of the previous program, TEA-21, to keep the nation’s infrastructure funded.

“There is bipartisan agreement that the program needs to be extended. The question is about what that extension is going to look like and what the process of getting that extension is going to look like,” Bowley said.

And now, as was the case a year before SAFETEA-LU became law, Republicans and Democrats are getting serious about an upcoming election.

“It’s going to be a challenge to get a bill through in any quick manner, and that’s understandable,” Bowley said.

OOIDA is urging Congress to get back to basics with the next long-term bill by returning the focus to highways and bridges – status quo for what the Highway Trust Fund was intended for.

“Now is not the time to spend money on things we don’t need,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer. “These limited funds should not foot the bill for a variety of special-interest projects like bike paths and high-speed rail.” LL