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Stalled Highway Bill Puts Lobbyists to Work

With the House’s highway bill stalled amid funding and policy squabbles, transportation lobbyists say they are moving into overdrive as they try to shield clients’ priorities.

A reauthorization of the surface transportation program, set to expire at the end of the month, has bred disagreement among House Republicans and has caused plenty of partisan haggling. The Senate, meanwhile, is working on its own version, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works panel.

“Our highest priority is sustaining highway and transit assistance at current levels,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

To help drive this message on Capitol Hill, the group has its state officials in town this week to lobby lawmakers. One participant, North Dakota Department of Transportation Director Francis Ziegler,  said he has been delivering a simple mantra to Members: “We need a bill.”

Ziegler said he wants a long-term measure. But if that’s not doable, he is urging Congress to craft a bill that extends programs for a couple of years.

Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) himself set out to do a long-term bill, but the measure collapsed with conservatives arguing that it was too costly and many Democrats criticizing the effort for not being bipartisan.

“No one seems to think they’ll do a six-year bill now,” said veteran transportation lobbyist Patrick McCann of McCann Capitol Advocates.

Ziegler, who spoke to Roll Call in between meetings at the Hall of States, said states such as North Dakota need certainty when planning construction projects. In his state, for example, a booming oil business has brought jobs and growth, but it has also increased the need to repair existing roads and build new highways. “The federal partner is a crucial component,” he said.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has big business on its side.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce-backed coalition Americans for Transportation Mobility sent a letter to Members earlier this year urging them to maintain and “ideally” increase federal funding for road, bridge and public transportation projects. Such investment, the coalition letter said, “can sustain and create jobs and economic activity in the short-term, and improve America’s export and travel infrastructure, offer new economic growth opportunities, and make the nation more competitive over the long-term.”

One of the major sticking points of the bill has been how to offset its costs.

Transportation lobbyist Jeffrey Boothe, a partner at Holland & Knight, said that in one respect, it’s a controversy largely confined to Capitol Hill.

“What’s interesting about this bill, with respect to the financing side, the industry — highways and transit — are unified as trying to identify the funding source,” Boothe said. “They favor the raising of the gasoline tax to finance the bill going forward. There is complete unanimity between the interest groups.”

But that doesn’t mean K Street expects Congress to go along, especially in an election year.

“Has it made a difference in terms of Congress having the political will to raise the gasoline tax?” Boothe said. “Not yet.”

And Horsley was even more blunt with his prediction of whether politicians would cozy up to the gas tax increase.

“We’re not naive to think that either the House or Senate or the president will do it,” he said. “There is no prospect for that happening. It’s not political feasible” — at least not before the November elections.

Boothe said he thinks the Senate will get a bill, and that, in turn, will pressure the House to follow suit. Another pressure on Members is the March 31 deadline when the existing authorization bill expires, but most lobbyists expect Congress to pass a temporary extension.

Boothe added that another wrinkle is that many Members, particularly Republicans, have politics on their minds.

“They’re all worried about Grover Norquist and the tea party and raising taxes,” he said, referring to the anti-tax advocate Norquist, who runs Americans for Tax Reform.

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