Three Tasks to Complete within Next Three Days to Enact a New Transportation Bill

3 tasks for passing a federal transportation bill by June 30 to replace SAFETEA-LU.Although SAFETEA-LU expires on June 30, there are only about six legislative days in which to pass a new bill or an extension. Realistically, the decision on which bill to pass will have to be made by the end of this week. It takes some time to craft an extension bill and get it through the House and Senate; if negotiators are still deadlocked by the middle to end of this week, legislative counsel and policy staff will have to turn their efforts to drafting language to extend SAFETEA-LU.

What needs to happen in the next few days to get a new transportation bill and avert an extension?

1. Negotiators must reach a deal on several still-unresolved transportation policy issues.
Okay, we sort of cheated here as there are a number of “subtasks.” Here are just a few.

  • Transportation enhancements program. The two chambers still disagree on whether this program, which funds bike-ped projects, should be mandatory or optional. The House reportedly is insisting that states be allowed to opt out upon the request of their Governor. The Senate wants to continue the mandatory set-aside of funding for the program (about 2% of the total funding).   Detractors claim the program is not a federal interest and is a luxury given declining transportation revenue. Advocates say the program is needed to increase transportation options, reduce emissions and build more livable communities.  The House reportedly wants to eliminate the Safe Routes to Schools program, while making similar projects eligible for funding.  Streetsblog DC has the pro-Safe Routes/Safe Streets argument.
  • Environmental permit streamlining. Last week Rep. Mica stated “House Republicans believe we must significantly reduce the time it takes to build a major highway project in this country. It takes 15 years on average to permit, design, and build a project and significantly increases the costs of these projects. Unfortunately, the Senate has refused to offer any substantive cuts to bureaucratic red tape associated with building a highway or bridge.” The National Natural Resources Defense Council’s Deron Lovaas advocates for environmental stewardship instead of streamlining.

 

2. Negotiators must agree on a funding level and the funding mechanisms.
This issue has been somewhat out-of-sight, out-of-mind as negotiators have largely left this issue to be one of the last to be decided. Gary Hoitsma of The Carmen Group, a DC-based public affairs company, has noted “the funding “elephant” still remains firmly entrenched in the room, hovering ominously unresolved over the entire process.”

That makes sense. Until policy and programs are agreed to it is unclear what the bill will cost, and how much (if any) general funding will be needed to supplement transportation revenue.

We do know that most House Republicans oppose the Senate’s funding level and funding mechanisms.  Funding the Senate proposal requires about $9.5 billion over ten years to pay for transfers into the Highway Trust Fund, just to maintain current transportation spending through September 2013.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently proposed that one of the Senate’s funding mechanisms, a pension premium fee, be used for the transportation bill and to pay for extending the (current) lower student loan interest rates (an issue also facing a June 30 deadline). That combination could attract more votes for the overall transportation deal.  Senate Republican leadership responded cautiously and did not reject the idea. House Republican leadership has yet to respond to this specific offer, but in the past have generally opposed the approach for the transportation bill.  House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Mica commented at the May 8 public Senate-House negotiating meeting that “…the solution to the Trust Fund solvency problem is not more deficit spending or General Fund transfers. The solution is major reform of programs, cutting wasteful spending and reigning in the federal bureaucracy.”

It is true that the House recently rejected a proposal to limit transportation funding to projected transportation revenues, and forego any general fund infusion.  Some people claim it is a victory for transportation investment and a green light for higher spending; others claim the proposal’s proponents oppose federal funding for highways and transportation.  We think both claims are an imprecise reading of Republican Members’ views on the issue.

The first two tasks almost certainly need to be resolved before Senate and House leadership would attempt the last task. In fact Senator Boxer has commented that “[W]e delivered our transportation [proposal] to them. The other [issues] we’ll deal with after we do that. This is a transportation bill.”

 

3. Senate and House leaders – above the committee leadership level – must reach agreement on two non-transportation issues: Keystone XL and the EPA/coal ash provision.
Member comments on Keystone have been all over the board, ranging from Rep. Mica’s May 10 comment “I think the Keystone pipeline is making great progress from what I have heard … as far as its acceptance into what we may do as a final bill,”  to “GOP hints it’ll part with Keystone XL pipeline to finish highway bill.” I can’t find the quote but I’m sure I’ve read Members or staff observing that, to date, there have been no discussions about Keystone XL, and that it’s a leadership negotiation, not a transportation conference committee negotiation.

Could all of that be accomplished in just a few days? 

Perhaps – if it were the only item on Congress’ plate and if leadership were completely committed to enacting a bill.  And if it was a higher priority for the President. The reality is that during the coming week the Senate is scheduled to continue work on the Farm Bill, the House is working on an energy bill and appropriations bills, and Members may want to spend some of the week’s floor time discussing the President’s immigration policy announcement.