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Highway bill: Detour, dead end or collision course?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2012 - WASHINGTON – With the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and thousands of jobs at stake, there appears to be wide agreement – including a rare convergence of support from the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO – that Congress should approve a major extension of the nation’s surface transportation programs.

But it’s a long way from that optimistic starting point and the logical finish line: a long-term deal to bolster funding for roads, bridges and mass transit. The controversial, five-year U.S. House vehicle already has stalled, broken into pieces that are now being rebuilt in a legislative pit stop by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

And the stripped-down two-year Senate vehicle is about to get its first road test this week, as Democratic and GOP leaders try to cut a deal to limit the number of amendments – including extraneous ones, such as the “rights of conscience” measure by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – and avoid a filibuster.

UPDATE:  Senators agreed Tuesday to debate and vote on Blunt's amendment on Thursday. That may help break the logjam of amendments and clear the way for later approval of the highway bill. END UPDATE

The clock is ticking because the current extension of the surface transportation program expires at the end of March. And the trust fund that pays for highway and transit programs could run out of funds in the 2013 federal budget year. Without a new roadmap and sources of revenue, the U.S. Transportation Department might end up slowing down reimbursements to states for highway construction and other projects – leading to the loss of thousands of jobs.

“In this divided, dysfunctional Congress, this is probably the best chance for us to pass a major bill that has significant economic impact,” said U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, a member of the House transportation committee.

But the roadblocks are formidable. Revenue from the federal gasoline tax have been falling, meaning that other “pay for” revenue must be identified. Rural lawmakers want more of the money slotted for road and bridge work, while urban and some suburban legislators want to retain at least the 15 to 20 percent that goes for mass transit programs. And some conservatives want to scale back the federal role in transit.

Carnahan, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, all oppose the House version of the surface transportation bill, which has a mostly Republican imprint and would decimate mass transit funding. Mass transit officials in St. Louis and in metropolitan areas across the nation have registered their opposition.

“There has been a lot of negative, bipartisan reaction to the House highway bill, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calling it the worst highway bill he has seen in 35 years,” said Costello. “As currently structured, it would dramatically reduce funding to Illinois with potential serious impacts for our region. For this bill to pass, there are going to have to be substantial changes.”

Speaker Boehner is re-tooling the House legislation this week, possibly including a change to its provision to end the commitment to funding mass transit with a portion of the revenue from federal gasoline taxes – replacing it with a one-time transfer of $40 billion in funds from a change in federal employee retirement plans. However, the House already used $15 billion of that funding to help pay for the recent extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance programs.

Other controversial provisions of the House bill would have eliminated federal programs that help pay for bike paths, bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects, including the Safe Routes to School program. That’s because many House GOP members want revenue from the 18.4 cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax and the 24.4 cent-a-gallon diesel tax to be focused on improving highways.

“I think most people really want more of the money that we pay in gas taxes to go to roads and bridges,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “You would be amazed how much is pulled out to do other things” beyond rail and bus lines in metropolitan areas.

But such programs improve transportation, says the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who suggests House Republicans should “go back to the drawing board” rather than push forward with its plan, which he warned would hurt transit agencies across Illinois and other states.

“After realizing the devastating impact this bill would have on mass transit and rail, members of Congress have been walking away from the House Republican proposal in droves,” Durbin said last week. “Instead of investing in the infrastructure we need to build our economy and create jobs, the House transportation bill destroys funding and creates financial uncertainty. At a time when passenger rail is growing, this bill starts shutting it down. That’s no vision for the future. That’s betting on failure.”

Senate bill would mostly extend the status quo

In contrast to the troubled House bill, the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill appears to have a good chance of passage. Developed through a rare cooperative effort of a liberal Democrat, Barbara Boxer of California, and a conservative Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the bill survived a procedural hurdle earlier this month in a 85-11 vote.

Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that “the only way to get the bill to the president's desk is through our bipartisan approach. Sen. Inhofe and I remain committed to working together to pass this much-needed job creating legislation.”

But even the Senate vehicle seemed likely to be stalled unless Democratic and GOP leaders can reach an agreement this week to limit the number of amendments. Hundreds of them have been proposed – some germane to transportation, others extraneous.

Blunt has the backing of the Senate GOP leadership in pressing for a vote on his highly controversial “Rights of Conscience” amendment, which he says aims to block health-care mandates that interfere with constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. And he wants to add it to the transportation bill because it is unlikely that President Barack Obama would veto that important legislation because of one amendment.

UPDATE: The agreement to vote Thursday on Blunt's amendment signaled progress was being made in limiting the total number of amendments. End update

Blunt has proposed at least three other amendments, including proposals to relax rules on boutique fuels, to channel more funding into state roads and bridges, and to exempt farmers from having to carry a commercial drivers license when they drive farm vehicles near their fields.

Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., wants to tack an amendment onto the transportation bill that would divert funding for large infrastructure projects in Afghanistan – under the Commanders' Emergency Response Program and the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund – and use that money for roads and bridges in this country.

On the House side, Carnahan said that – depending on what changes that Speaker Boehner ends up making in the surface transportation bill – he has “several amendments in the queue. … We’re attacking it on several levels to try to make improvements.”

Shimkus agrees that “there is a high level of frustration” about the House bill – even among Republicans. “Most of us believe that, no matter what the House did, we would end up with a two-year bill.”

Carnahan thinks an agreement is still possible if House Republicans revamp their approach. “They have really gone out on a very shaky, unprecedented limb by making this so partisan,” Carnahan added. “If they don’t come back from the limb, it’s going to doom this from making it to the president’s desk.”