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Senate passes two-year highway bill as House struggles with own version

The Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion highway, mass transit bill on Wednesday that House Republicans may find a tough lift as it struggles with its own version for transportation funding.

The legislation is intended to keep aid flowing to thousands of construction projects while also strengthening highway and auto safety. Advocates say it will save or create 2.8 million jobs.

Senators approved the bill by a 74-22 vote Wednesday, putting pressure on the House to act quickly. The rare display of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats in a bitterly partisan election year was attributed in part to co-sponsorship of the bill from California Democratic Sen.  Barbara Boxer and Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe.

According to the legislation, states would have greater discretion over how to spend the money, but the bill also would create a new set 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 a compromise that moves 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.

Amendments added to the bill that provide sweeping exemptions from federal commercial driver's licenses, vehicle inspection and other safety requirements for agricultural trucks operating with 150 miles of their farm were strongly criticized by safety advocates. The amendments by Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have broad industry support.

One thing the bill doesn't do is resolve how to keep the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent beyond next year. The largest source of money for the fund, which pays for highway and transit programs, is federal fuel taxes: 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel. Revenue from those taxes has declined since the economic downturn in 2008 and because the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks is increasing.

The bill would pay for highway programs through a combination of fuel taxes, cuts to other federal programs and tax changes, but also would drain the trust fund. Some senators have criticized provisions that are supposed to pay for transportation programs since they would raise about $10 billion over 10 years, but spend it in the first two years.

The government's power to collect about $110 million a day in federal gasoline and diesel taxes is set to expire March 31. Those taxes are the main source of revenue for highway and transit programs.

If lawmakers don't pass a final bill by month's end, Congress would have to act quickly on a temporary extension to avoid the shutdown of thousands of projects and worker layoffs. But efforts by the House GOP to pass their own bill without concessions to Democrats have fallen apart in recent weeks, adding pressure on the Republicans to accept the Senate bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.