Highway bill gets extension; now let’s get a long-term solution

The U.S. House yesterday passed a seven-month extension of the multi-year surface transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU), aka the highway bill, to keep funding highway, safety and transit programs through Sept. 30, 2011.

The multi-year surface transportation bill expired in September 2009 and has since been extended several times to keep funds flowing and projects moving forward. A long-term authorization, however, has been elusive due to a variety of factors, including party politics.

The extension the House passed, by a vote of 421-4, needs to be approved by the Senate before the current extension expires tomorrow. According to U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (T&I), if an extension is not agreed to, nearly $800 million in highway reimbursements to states could be in danger next week.

But Rahall comments on the passage of this short-term bill identifies some of the problems that lie ahead to get a long-term authorization approved.

“Extending these programs is critical to keeping our economy on the road to recovery, and I strongly support this bill – as did my colleagues on both sides of the aisle – when we passed it out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee two weeks ago under unanimous consent,” he said. “What I cannot support, however, are Republican attempts to gut investments that grow our economy, such as those in the Republican spending bill that passed two weeks ago. What I cannot support is dangerous and draconian cuts to investments in America’s future just as our economy is turning the corner. What I cannot support is cutting the job-creating muscle of our budget when we should be focusing on trimming the fat.”

House T&I Chairman John Mica (R-FL), along with other members of the committee, has been barnstorming the country in recent weeks to gain feedback from industry stakeholders and the public on how a future authorization bill should look. How much of that input will go into the final bill, though, will probably depend as much on party politics as funding possibilities.

If a long-term bill is not completed by September, and Mica has said it is a priority to get one passed by then, we could be looking at two more years of extensions as we enter a presidential election cycle. Very few member of Congress - Republicans or Democrats, Representatives or Senators - are going to want to wade into a massive funding bill that is sure to be criticized by nearly everyone that has a stake in transportation just before an important election.

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope this is the last extension for quite some time.