Transportation’s tug of war

| 7/15/2009

To the winner of the transportation tug of war on Capitol Hill go full bragging rights for shaping the foreseeable future of transportation.

At one end of the rope are members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who reported a bill to the Senate floor on Wednesday, July 15, designed to extend the current transportation formula by 18 months in lockstep with the White House.

With a firm grip on the other end are members of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who designed a six-year, $450 billion transportation authorization bill and reported it to the full committee in late June. The House bill would replace the current authorization, known as SAFETEA-LU, which is set to expire Sept. 30 of this year.

The simultaneous actions involving the future of transportation – maintaining the status quo versus a complete policy overhaul – have been the subject of numerous hearings. Those hearings continue Thursday when the House T&I Subcommittee on Highways and Transit digs in.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, and the T&I Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN – who teamed up with ranking committee Republicans Rep. John Mica of Florida and Rep. John J. Duncan of Tennessee to write the House version – issued a joint statement calling the White House’s proposed 18-month extension of SAFETEA-LU “short-sighted” and “unacceptable.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, chair of the Senate EPW Committee, responded Wednesday by saying anything but a SAFETEA-LU extension at this point would lead to economic uncertainty as lawmakers weigh options on how to fund a longer-term outlook.

“This, in my view, would lead to a stronger economy, jobs and a better quality of life for our families,” Boxer said.

Boxer and the EPW Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, are co-sponsors of the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2009, which is designed to extend current policy and funding levels for transportation for 18 months.

Boxer’s committee voted 18-1 on Wednesday to report the bill to the Senate floor for consideration.

To nobody’s surprise, the Senate holdout was Sen. George Voinovich, R-OH, who stands with Oberstar and DeFazio on the need for immediate action on a six-year plan.

In an attempt at compromise, Voinovich offered an amendment to shorten Boxer’s proposed 18-month extension to 12 months, which, in his words, would put the heat on Congress to make long-term commitments to transportation before the next federal election cycle. The Voinovich amendment garnered a handful of committee votes but was defeated 8-11.

Boxer vowed that the Senate would have a robust version of long-term legislation by the time the 18-month extension expires in 2011.

An extension of SAFETEA-LU, she said, would provide $41 billion for transportation programs in 2010 and $20.5 billion in 2011 at 2009 funding levels. By then, she said, the Senate will have an idea how to fund a six-year authorization.

Boxer cautioned that the Oberstar bill could “double the gas tax” even though that phrase does not occur in his proposal.

Time is running out not to consider short-term options, Boxer said, because the Highway Trust Fund that collects and distributes fuel taxes and other user fees is about to go broke sometime in August. Short-term fixes may be inevitable as lawmakers continue to position themselves.

The current policy and funding plan, SAFETEA-LU, required 12 temporary extensions lasting nearly two years before becoming law in August 2005.

– By David Tanner, staff writer