Cover Story
Fighting for Change
Rough road ahead
Capitol Hill abuzz, but can Congress pass a highway bill during a presidential election year?

By David Tanner, associate editor

For the first time in seven years, Capitol Hill has been abuzz with talk of a highway bill. While the talk contained optimism that a bill would pass and become law, the proposed legislation has some rough roads ahead.

At press time, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and the Democratic leadership in the Senate were split on a wide range of provisions, including how much to spend and how long the legislation should last.

The House version calls for five years of transportation policy and programs totaling $260 billion. The Senate version is a two-year bill costing $109 billion.

The Senate was first in getting its bill off the ground in November 2011, when the Environment and Public Works Committee passed S1813, known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century or MAP-21.

MAP-21 contains funding and highway provisions for the transportation authorization, and members of the committee hailed it as a bipartisan bill.

A month later, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved S1950, the Commercial Vehicle Motor Vehicle Safety Enhancement Act of 2011, giving MAP-21 some momentum heading into the new year.

The first two months of 2012 saw the Senate Finance Committee add S1950 to the mix in an attempt to make up a $13 billion shortfall in the bill.

The Senate Banking Committee also added a provision dealing strictly with transit, clearing the way for the MAP-21 package to be debated on the Senate floor. Debate and floor amendments to the MAP-21 bill were scheduled for mid-February.

The House’s five-year bill, known as HR7, originated in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chaired by Rep. John Mica, R-FL. It was scheduled for debate and floor amendments in late February.

OOIDA sent a letter to Mica in general support of HR7 and to commend the T&I Committee for getting a bill this far.

“OOIDA wants to especially commend you for including a much needed truck parking provision, a study to research heavy-duty truck cab crashworthiness, and an important first step toward curbing abuses in freight brokering,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer wrote.

The House Ways and Means Committee added a provision to HR7 that OOIDA also favors – a requirement that 100 percent of motor fuel taxes remain with highways. Current law calls for 20 percent of highway funds to be used for transit.

Despite its high points, HR7 faced some rough road heading into the floor debates, especially for a provision tying domestic oil and gas production to funds for surface transportation. At press time, the drilling proposal was still a non-starter for many Democrats.

Which bill will prevail?

With both HR7 and MAP-21 officially on the table as of press time, Congress was wading into territory not seen since the previous authorization bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, passed and became law in the summer of 2005.

The provisions of SAFETEA-LU are still the current law of the land for transportation despite the technical expiration of the law in September 2009. Since then, Congress has passed eight temporary extensions of SAFETEA-LU to keep transportation afloat.

The current extension is set to expire March 31, putting Congress against the wall to finish one of the new bills or extend the status quo yet again.

If one or both of HR7 and MAP-21 were to pass, the House and Senate would have to appoint a conference committee to draft final language. Both chambers would have to pass final language before sending the legislation to the president’s desk for signature.

With a presidential election set to take place in November, the clock continues to tick on a process that could make or break the next generation of surface transportation programs. LL