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Senate poised to pass highway and transit programs overhaul

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Feb. 16, 2012: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks on Capitol Hill.AP

The Senate is poised to pass an overhaul of highway and transit programs that gives states greater flexibility over how they spend federal aid, streamlines environmental regulations to get projects built faster and seeks to generate greater private investment in transportation projects.

More than 20 amendments -- including proposals to allow states to charge tolls on interstate highways, provide tax credits for alternative energy and cars that run on natural gas, and permit more flights over the Grand Canyon and other national parks -- are set to be decided Tuesday in an all-day marathon of voting.

The bill has unusual bipartisan support. Its chief co-sponsors, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., frequently are described as political polar opposites.

The measure would spend $109 billion over less than two years. That's far short of the level of spending that two congressional commissions have said is needed if the U.S. is to maintain its aging roads and bridges and bus and train systems, and to expand the national transportation network to meet population growth between now and 2050.

Senate Democrats have been pitching the measure as a jobs bill, predicting it would create nearly 3 million jobs. But economists say it's not certain the bill would create any more jobs than would be created by the same amount of money spent on something else.

The bill would increase the flow of highway aid to states by adjusting current spending levels to take into account inflation over the past several years. States would have greater discretion over how to spend the money, but the bill also would create a new regime of performance and project eligibility requirements aimed at preventing waste and making sure national goals are met.

A credit assistance program that helps leverage private investment for transportation projects of national and regional significance would be increased tenfold to $1 billion. In the past, the program has been able to generate as much as $30 in private capital for every $1 in aid, Boxer has said.

The measure also would reduce the number of federal transportation programs by roughly two-thirds in an effort to eliminate duplication. Bicycle, pedestrian, safe routes to schools and rails-to-trails programs -- which were targeted by Republicans -- were preserved by moving them into a larger congestion mitigation program where they would have to compete with other programs for money.

Safety measures in the bill would toughen regulation of the long-distance and tour bus industries, including setting deadlines for government requirements that buses have seat belts, improved roof strength, anti-ejection window glazing and rollover crash avoidance systems. The bus industry transports about 750 million passengers a year, roughly the same as the domestic airline industry.

One thing the bill doesn't do is resolve how to keep the Federal Highway Trust Fund solvent. The fund pays for highway and transit programs, but revenues have declined while spending has remained the same. The largest source of money for the fund is federal gasoline and diesel taxes, which have been down for several years because of the economic downturn and because the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks is increasing.

The bill pays for highway programs through next year through a combination of fuel taxes, cuts to other federal programs and tax changes, but then leaves the trust fund empty. Some senators have been critical of the provisions that are supposed to pay for transportation programs since they raise about $10 billion over 10 years, but spend it in the first two years.

The highway bill "is so popular that members on both sides of the aisle are willing to kick the can down the road," Sen. Bob Corker, D-Tenn., said. "I think the American people understand that passing a bill that spends money over two years and tries to recoup it over a 10-year period is a highway to insolvency."

Lawmakers are under pressure to act quickly. The government's authority to levy federal fuel taxes -- which raise about $110 million a day -- and to spend money from the trust fund expires March 31.