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Punting on transportation … again

Dec. 17, 2009
“Delay is unacceptable. Delay casts uncertainty on the program. If we delay the new authorization, states will hold back on new projects and that will cost jobs. We are not in the business of delay. It is time to move ahead.” –Rep. James L. Oberstar ...

Delay is unacceptable. Delay casts uncertainty on the program. If we delay the new authorization, states will hold back on new projects and that will cost jobs. We are not in the business of delay. It is time to move ahead.” –Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN) in comments earlier this year on why Congress and the White House must act sooner rather than later to pass the estimated $500 billion Surface Transportation Bill

Well, actually, delay seems to be acceptable after all. Congress yet again bought itself some more time to figure out how it’s going to pass the 2009 Surface Transportation Bill by passing another extension this week – tucked into the H.R. 3326, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act.

This extends the current six-year highway bill – dubbed “SAFETEA-LU” which stands for “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users” – that expired September 30 this year through February 28, 2010. Congress originally passed an extension in September that was due to run out on Dec. 18; now they’ve got a few more months to get the next extension lined up.

Oh, yes; this is only an “interim extension” according to a press release from U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, headed by Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN). It’s designed to give the U.S. Senate time to act on the Jobs for Main Street Act of 2010 (H.R. 2487), which (surprise, surprise) contains an extension that will take the current highway bill through September 30, 2010.

Interestingly enough, the Main Street Jobs bill (as it’s being called) carries a lot of direct funding for transportation projects – acting almost as a “mini highway bill” of its own, in a way – to the tune of $75 billion. The funding breaks down this way: some $37.3 billion aimed at transportation programs, including $27.5 billion for highways and $8.4 billion for transit and another $1.715 billion provided for water infrastructure.

The committee’s press release also pointed out that, as with the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed (the so-called “stimulus bill”) passed back in February, the “Main Street Jobs” bill allows highway projects to be funded at 100%, instead of the traditional 80-20 federal-local split.

More importantly, H.R. 2847 also incorporates the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2009, which extends core highway, highway safety, and transit programs through September 30 next year at $53.3 billion – the level assumed in the FY 2010 budget resolution, the committee said.

There’s a bunch of other things this highway bill extension will do, if passed, according to Oberstar’s committee:

• Since long-term authorization of SAFETEA-LU expired on September 30, core highway, highway safety, and transit programs have been extended on a short-term basis at a funding level that is significantly below the FY 2009 authorized level. H.R. 2847 will increase funding by $10.7 billion, nearly to the FY 2009 authorized level.

• The bill also includes provisions to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund. It restores $19.5 billion in interest payments foregone on the Trust Fund’s previous cash balances, and lifts the ban on the Trust Fund receiving interest payments in the future. This will increase the Trust Fund’s balance by an estimated $500 million to $1 billion annually, in the near-term.

• Finally, the bill calls for the General Fund, rather than the Highway Trust Fund, to support long-standing fuel tax exemptions, such as those provided to state and local governments. This provision will increase Trust Fund balances by about $1.7 billion annually, for a total of $9.8 billion over six years.

It’s important to note that this highway bill extension – and the Main Street Jobs bill for that matter – is still very much in its infancy. In fact, the Senate is not going to start working on this until Congress reconvenes after the holidays in early 2010. A lot of this funding may stay, or it could get tossed, depending on what final legislation is negotiated between the House and the Senate.

One thing is clear, however; debate and ultimate passage of a six-year replacement for SAFETEA-LU is still a long way off.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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