House Jobs Bill Answers Some Key Transportation Questions

The House jobs bill, expected to pass later today before the chamber adjourns for the holidays, includes a $75 billion infrastructure section that gives $27.5 billion to roads and $8.4 billion to transit, largely mirroring this year's first economic stimulus law.

jobs_bill.pngThe header of today's House jobs bill: No one ever said they're easy reads! (Image: House Rules Cmte)
However, the legislation also makes some small but notable changes to the stimulus' transportation architecture that only the biggest transportation wonks might notice. Here is a rundown of just a few:
  • Remember those $100 million in stimulus grants that went to particularly energy-efficient transit projects? The House jobs bill would set aside the same amount from the $8.4 billion transit pool for another round of awards.
  • The first stimulus included "use it or lose it" language that required states to obligate their transportation money within 180 days or risk losing a sizable chunk of the cash. The new House jobs bill -- with Florida in mind, perhaps -- cuts that to 90 days, for both roads and transit.
  • House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar's (D-MN) new six-year federal bill remains stalled, but today's jobs measure assumes a bright future for one element of his vision: the U.S. DOT Office of Expedited Project Delivery (OEPD), which Oberstar wants to ride herd on massive projects and ensure the bureaucratic process moves smoothly.
  • The jobs bill would give the new OEPD $6.5 million in total to help oversee new spending.
  • With transit agencies across the country struggling to close large deficits in their operating budgets -- that is, the funds to keep bus drivers in their seats and train ticket windows open -- the House jobs bill would allow states to use 10 percent of their transit money on operating. A similar provision was applied to the first stimulus law after the fact.

    The operating-aid deal was secured by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and hailed by the Transportation Equity Network, where executive director Laura Barrett issued the following statement:
    This will help put transit employees around the country to work, and it will help the rest of America get to work. If we really care about jobs, though, we need far more federal funding for public transit. Public transit creates more jobs per dollar of government spending than highway construction or repair. Public transit jobs are the original green jobs, they’re unionized, and they build lives and careers.
  • Speaking of Oberstar's stalemate-plagued transportation bill, today's jobs legislation would extend its 2005 predecessor until September 30, 2010. That re-up of existing policy would theoretically provide the House and Senate room to work out a deal on a new bill; but if 2009 is any guide, short-term extensions may become the norm as the Obama administration continues to push for a delay into 2011.

    Separately, the House added a two-month extension of the 2005 federal transportation bill to a Pentagon budget measure that is a must-pass in the Senate. That shorter extension is the more likely to become law.
  • The House jobs bill addresses the financial future of the nation's highway trust fund, which has lost money as the gas tax's relative value shrinks (and also includes money for transit as well as bike-ped projects).

    Near the end of the legislation is language that would follow the lead of a Senate compromise struck in July. Its main elements: telling the Treasury to transfer $14.7 billion to highway accounts and $4.8 billion to transit accounts to make up for years when the trust fund was blocked from collecting interest. Today's bill also formally reverses a decade-old bargain and allows interest to begin accruing once more.

Late Update: A helpful Washington source points out that the House jobs bill's "use it or lose it" language is stronger than a mere halving of the previous 180-day deadline. The first stimulus law used the term "obligate" when referring to deadlines for using transportation money, but the new bill uses the term "under contract," which would require much quicker action on the part of state DOTs.

The House has just started debate on the jobs bill, and Oberstar's floor statement takes note of the ongoing disputes between the two chambers of Congress over timing for the next long-term transportation bill:

I regret that the Other Body was unable to complete action on a multi-year surface transportation bill this year.  I urge the Senate to focus on the needs of the millions of Americans who are without jobs or who are in danger of losing their jobs, Americans who are struggling to provide for their families, and desperately need the jobs that would be created not only by the bill before us today, but also by a long-term authorization of surface transportation programs.