Transportation Bill Heats Up Again in Congress

There’s been plenty of buzz over the last few days surrounding Congress’s efforts to pass a multi-year transportation bill.

Rep. John Mica's five-year transportation bill will be unveiled tomorrow. (Update: no it won't.) Photo: 13 News

When Congress adjourned last month, the Senate had made significant progress on a two-year bill. In the House, Rep. John Mica had repeatedly promised a five- or six-year bill, but nothing had been introduced. Now, finally, Congress is showing signs of picking up where they left off. Here’s a rundown of the latest:

Details of House Transportation Bill Emerge…

According to multiple sources, the House transportation bill – called the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act – reauthorizes highway and transit programs for five years at around $52 billion per year, for a total of $260 billion. It seems likely that the bill would use revenue from oil and gas drilling fees. Mica is reportedly still pushing for a sixth year.

Rep. Bill Shuster said yesterday that T&I Committee Democrats would get their copies of the bill today, and the full text would be released to the general public tomorrow. (Jan. 27 update: A press event unveiling the full text of the House bill is now planned for next Tuesday, Jan. 31, instead.) Shuster had much more to say about the future of federal support for transportation, and Streetsblog will have more on that later today.

…And Next Week Will Be Busy…

Once the full text is released, three House committees need to bring portions of the bill into markup: Ways and Means, Natural Resources, and of course Transportation and Infrastructure are all planning markups for next week. T&I’s markup for the House bill is tentatively scheduled for next Thursday at 9 a.m., but it does not yet appear on the committee’s legislative calendar.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, long-awaited markups in the Finance and Banking committees are also tentatively scheduled for next week. They are each responsible for a portion of Barbara Boxer’s bill, which comes in at $54 billion per year for just two years. The Finance Committee is charged with finding some way to fill in the $12-ish billion that gas tax revenues would not cover over the life of the bill. If gas and oil drilling fees come up for discussion, that committee’s markup could offer us a preview of the entire bill’s fate.

…But LaHood Thinks Reauthorization Will Wait.

For all the activity in Congress, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood believes that political realities will prevent any long-term bill from being passed until after the election. Per the Washington Post:

“I believe we’ll probably have to wait until next year to get to a surface transportation bill because of the huge differences,” LaHood told a conference of transportation experts meeting in Washington. “Given the politics, the number of days that remain, the differences between what the Senate and the House are looking at, I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll have a surface transportation bill during this year.”

LaHood’s remarks came at nearly the same time as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced a push to “Make Transportation Job #1.” The Chamber — which normally aligns with the oil lobby, fought openly against climate change legislation, and cares little for reforming America’s highway-centric transportation policy — has released an open letter to Congress urging a long-term reauthorization at increased spending levels, and will be spending half a million dollars on a multi-state publicity campaign.

Also From LaHood: Transit, High-Speed Rail

While it’s not exactly as earth-shattering as the changes proposed by LaHood this time last year, the secretary did propose changes to speed up the FTA’s New Starts and Small Starts programs approval process. The FTA’s press release was vague on the details, but the official notice of proposed rulemaking [PDF] explains how they hope to accomplish this:

  • Using a simplified measure of “mobility benefits,” giving additional weight to trips generated among “transit-dependent” populations
  • Expanding the ability of projects to pre-qualify based on project or corridor characteristics
  • Proposing ways to simplify data submitted for evaluation
  • Simplifying the development of “points of comparison” for a build/no-build scenario analysis
  • Clarifying the local financial commitment criteria
  • Eliminating the need to re-evaluate projects that stay within a set “envelope” of cost and scope.

The changes are incredibly technical, but it seems most of the time savings will come from a smaller paperwork burden. In LaHood’s estimation, these changes could shave as much as six months off an FTA approval.

As for high-speed rail, LaHood is not backing away from President Obama’s vision of giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail by 2036. “If you look at the money we’ve invested over the last 18 months – almost a billion dollars in Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor, which is what members of Congress have been clamoring for – we listened to them, and we made those investments,” LaHood said yesterday. “High-speed rail is a priority for President Obama and it’s a priority for the administration, and we’re going to continue to make progress.”