Details on Thursday’s Senate Votes On Transportation Jobs Bills

[Thursday 6pm update: as predicted, neither bill received the necessary 60 votes to pass.]

Today the Senate will vote on two transportation jobs bills, and neither will get the required 60 votes to pass.  The Democratic version will fail because Republicans oppose the financing mechanism of surcharge on millionaire’s income. The Republican version (a two-year extension of SAFETEA-LU, with regulatory reforms added in) will fail in part because Democrats will oppose many of the proposed policy and regulatory changes.

What happens next? Both parties retreat to their corners, blame the other party for the lack of progress.  Meanwhile, roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, people are injured and killed on highways needing safety improvements, aging buses and vans need to be replaced, construction workers continue to draw unemployment benefits. Attention will shift to the Senate EPW Committee’s scheduled November 9 action on the draft highways section of a surface transportation bill.

President Obama and USDOT may act in spite of the Senate’s deadlock.  Obama announced Wednesday he “will use his authority to expedite loans and competitive grants for new infrastructure projects around the country” if the Senate fails to pass his infrastructure bill.

There is a silver lining. At least the Senate is debating and talking about transportation – moving the process forward.  And both (Senate) parties now have laid their proposals on the table, giving us an idea of the policy parameters and priorities.  Transportation stakeholders now have something to react to.  And, some Republicans are expressing support for an infrastructure bank and transportation investment – if opposing the Democratic proposal for funding.

Here’s what the Senate will be voting on:

The Senate Democratic (White House) proposal (S.1769, Rebuild America Jobs Act, 98-page PDF)  would provide about $27 billion for roads and bridges, $9 billion for mass transit, $5 billion for projects chosen through a competitive grant program, $4 billion for passenger rail, $2 billion for airports and $1 billion for an improved air traffic control system.  It will also provide $10 billion to seed an infrastructure bank.

Republicans oppose the funding mechanism – a tax surcharge on earnings over $1 million. 60 votes will be required to pass the bill; Democrats have only 53 members and three defected to vote with the Republicans on the last jobs bill.  Even if it could pass the Senate the bill would be DOA in the House.

The Senate Republican proposal (S. 1786, Long-Term Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2011, 106-page PDF) would

  • Extend SAFETEA-LU to September 30, 2013 (but doesn’t fully fund the projected shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund)
  • Streamline project delivery, by reducing regulatory review timeframes
  • Eliminate the Transportation Enhancement setaside
  • force all new, major health, safety, and environmental protections through a congressional approval process
  • require the EPA to reconsider onerous new regulations that impact the nation’s cement producers

The bill would be paid for by transferring $40 billion from previously appropriated discretionary spending. It gives the President the authority to choose the source of funding, as long as it doesn’t come from defense, veterans or Army Corps of Engineers accounts.