TRANSPORTATION:

Jobs package creates cash, 'room for real debate' on next highway bill

The jobs package the House passed yesterday would give $36 billion to the nation's roads and rails -- but that wasn't its only gift to the transportation community.

The legislation (H.R. 2847) would also extend the current highway and transit law through the end of September 2010, something many in the sector hope will shift lawmakers' attention away from recent clashes over a series of shorter extensions and toward getting down to work on the next full, multiyear bill.

"What this does is create room for a real debate about the various options both for reform and how we pay for it," said Colin Peppard, a transportation policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For more than a year, NRDC and other transportation stakeholders have been pleading for lawmakers to focus their attention on passing the next multiyear highway and transit bill to succeed the current law, which had been set to expire at the end of September of this year. They argue the larger bill is needed to overhaul the system and to give states the certainty they need to undertake large-scale projects.

Reform-minded advocates applauded the House yesterday for including the short-term transportation cash, but many urged Congress to focus on the larger effort.

"Short-term measures, based on an outmoded, 1950s-era transportation program, simply are not sufficient to meet the economic challenges of the 21st century," said James Corless, director of Transportation For America.

But with uncertainty over how Congress will continue to fund current federal transportation spending -- let alone the substantial increase many are calling for -- lawmakers have spent the past year looking for ways to prop up the ailing federal account that finances transportation projects and feuding over when they would be ready to begin debate on larger reforms.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has been fighting since this summer to gain traction for his six-year, $500 billion proposal, but that effort remains stalled waiting for the Ways and Means Committee to write the bill's financing provisions.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and other key lawmakers have been pushing to punt the next bill into early 2011, something Oberstar has steadfastly opposed.

The degree of the ongoing clash was evident last month when Boxer and Oberstar held competing press conferences on opposite sides of the Capitol to call for the same thing: billions of dollars for transportation in any jobs legislation.

"There are people, especially in the House, who have been working hard on [the next bill]," Peppard said. "But the Senate has mostly been focused on writing the short extensions. This actually sets a real time table. Whether the Senate actually meets that is something that depends on external factors but at least it sets one."

September finish line?

In order for what equates to a nine-month highway extension to take hold, the Senate must sign off on the jobs bill, which won't happen until early next year at the earliest and provides little guarantee that lawmakers won't fall back on one or more short extensions at the end of next summer.

One of Boxer's main reasons for extending the current law into early 2011 was to push the transportation debate -- which will likely involve politically charged fights over a federal gas tax increase and other revenue-raising measures -- to the other side of next year's midterm elections. The jobs bill's extension, however, would expire at the end of next September, less than two months before voters head to the polls.

Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institute, said with elections every two years, it is difficult to find a time that is politically convenient to tackle the financing question. "Politically speaking, what we've seen is there is no good time," he said. "So that is a bit of a hollow argument and folks are starting to recognize that."

Puentes expressed optimism that the nine-month extension could reignite the urgency behind the transportation reform that many in the community have been calling for but noted that momentum has come and gone before.

He said he watched interest in reform spike after reports from two congressionally created blue ribbon panels called for a drastic overhaul of how the nation moves its goods and people then fall in the following months as Congress focused on the stimulus package.

"This isn't new," Puentes said. "We did the same thing this summer. We came back to the reform idea when Oberstar released his plan in June, but then we kind of forgot about those reforms or at least put them aside as we started talking about the new jobs bill."

Highway Trust Fund

The jobs legislation taps a federal account Congress created last year to prop up Wall Street to pay for the $27.5 billion in highway work and $8.4 billion for mass transit projects.

The Senate version of the bill could provide alternative funding levels, and some advocates -- such as Transportation For America, Smart Growth America and U.S. PIRG -- have already said they will call for any transportation investment to provide a higher percentage for transit.

The House package would also provide a $20 billion cash infusion for the Highway Trust Fund, which provides the roughly $50 billion the federal government spends annually on transportation. The bill also would restore the trust fund's ability to garner interest on its revenues, something Congress agreed to give up in 1998 as part of negotiations to secure a firewall around transportation funding.

Senate Democrats attempted similar changes to the trust fund earlier this year during their 18-month push.

Those steps will likely allow the trust fund, which relies mostly on revenues collected from federal fuel taxes, to stay solvent through the end of the extension. Earlier this year, the White House estimated the fund could last through March 2011 with a $20 billion transfer.

"The financing changes included in the package are certainly not a long-term funding solution," Peppard said. "This buys time in a way that meets the current needs of Congress, but it's far from a long-term solution."

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