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U.S. Senate hits the gas on highway 'jobs' bill stalled in House

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2012 - WASHINGTON — Brushing aside partisan wrangling, the U.S. Senate approved a two-year, $109 billion surface transportation funding bill Wednesday that continues the federal commitment to mass transit, streamlines the number of federal transportation programs and would preserve or create about 2.8 million jobs.

But the legislation, approved 74 to 22, faces an uncertain future in the Republican-led U.S. House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been trying to retool a controversial five-year bill that would threaten mass transit aid and link additional highway funding to domestic oil drilling.

If no highway-bill compromise reaches President Barack Obama’s desk by March 31, a temporary extension would have to be approved by Congress to allow the government to keep collecting the $110 million a day it receives from federal taxes on gasoline (18.4 cents a gallon) and diesel (24.4 cents a gallon), which pay for most of the highway and transit programs.

Senators from Missouri and Illinois supported the bill; Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill, did not vote because he is still recovering from a stroke. According to an analysis by the federal transportation department, Missouri would get about $1.9 billion over two years in “highway formula apportionments” under the Senate bill; Illinois would get $2.7 billion.

The legislation includes a couple of amendments backed by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to ensure that Missouri’s crumbling bridges remain eligible for federal aid.

The first amendment, introduced with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., would maintain a dedicated revenue stream for bridges not on the federal-aid or National Highway System. Blunt’s office says 57 percent of Missouri’s bridges — about 14,000 of 24,200 bridges — are considered to be “off system.” And nearly a third of the state’s off-system bridges are rated as deficient.

The second amendment, which Blunt backed along with U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would help provide funding to repair federal-aid, non-NHS bridges. According to the Federal Highway Administration, Missouri has more bridges than all but five other states. Illinois ranks third, with more than 26,660 bridges.

“These bipartisan amendments will help ensure that Missouri and other states have the resources they need to fund important infrastructure systems nationwide,” said Blunt, who Tweeted after the Senate’s vote that he was “glad we passed the highway bill.” 

The Senate leadership declined to take up an amendment filed by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that called for cutting funds for big “reconstruction” projects in Afghanistan and redirecting those resources to road and bridge construction in this country. McCaskill says she plans to offer the amendment later to a defense bill.

After Wednesday’s vote, McCaskill said the legislation’s formula would send hundreds of millions of dollars into Missouri transportation projects over the next two years. “It’s refreshing to finally see folks on both sides of the aisle come together to pass a much-needed jobs bill,” she said in a statement.

McCaskill called on the U.S. House “to quickly vote on this bipartisan plan. We’ve had enough delay, and Missouri needs these jobs just as much as America needs this investment in roads and bridges.”

But Boehner and other House Republicans appeared to be leaning toward passing a stopgap extension of the surface transportation bill this month and turning instead to budget and health-care legislation. In the meantime, the House GOP conference would try to retool its five-year bill in a way that could pass. If all else fails, the House could turn to a two-year solution similar to the Senate bill.

The Senate-passed bill drew support from both labor and business, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and the Associated General Contractors of America. The White House also called on the House to “move swiftly and in similarly bipartisan fashion” to approve a surface transportation funding extension.

Relieved that mass transit and other rail funding was not slashed, the National League of Cities praised the Senate’s bill as “a model” for the House because “it provides adequate funding and recognizes the importance of transportation funding to local economic development and vitality.”

The president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said he was pleased that the bill includes the “America Fast Forward” program, to allow local transit agencies to compete for $2 billion in low-interest TIFIA loans from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The Senate also found a compromise to preserve several bicycle, pedestrian, “safe routes to schools” and “rails-to-trails programs,” although they would have to compete with other programs for funding.

While the Senate bill would hike the amount of federal funds available to states for highway, bridge and transit programs — mainly by taking recent inflation into account in the formulas — that increase is below what two panels have recommended for federal help in maintaining the nation’s deteriorating bridge, highway and rail systems.

Benefits to rail transit and Illinois priorities

Start of update: After the vote, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the bill helped
protect several transit priorities for Illinois, including:

  • A "state of good repair" program to help public transportation systems tackle the backlog of maintenance needs for America’s aging transit systems.
  • Strengthening current programs and policies for intercity passenger rail.  States would be able to use federal funds to help operate passenger rail service.  This provision could help Illinois pay for new passenger rail service to Rockford and the Quad Cities.
  • Allowing existing transit systems to compete for “new starts” funding. Currently, only extensions or new transit lines can compete for such federal funding.
  • Increasing the amount of money that commuters can set aside before taxes for mass transit each month.
  • Retaining the "Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement" program to help big cities pay for transportation projects that improve air quality and mitigate congestion.
  • Offering a new competitive grant program, parallel to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, to allow communities to apply directly to the Department of Transportation for funding of nationally significant transportation projects. Several projects in Illinois and Missouri have been funded under the similar TIGER grant program. End update.