Highway Bill One Answer to Gas Price Spike

Posted June 12, 2008 at 1:45pm

Although the soaring price of gasoline is attracting the most attention from Americans, lawmakers are hoping that a half- trillion-dollar highway bill could deal with more systemic problems in the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

In an effort to frame the debate, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans to spend the next several weeks holding preliminary discussions about what should be in the bill, which will determine how federal highway programs should be authorized.

The bill — estimated by the committee to cost around $500 billion for a six-year reauthorization — could be introduced by panel Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) by late fall.

Committee aides predict that negotiations on the bill will be especially tough given tight transportation budgets and a push to limit earmarks. Paying for the bill will also spawn heated debate, a problem exacerbated by an expected $3.2 billion shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund before the current surface transportation law expires on Sept. 30.

One debate that is beginning to emerge is how much money should be devoted to expanding the nation’s roads and highways and how much should be devoted to keeping existing arteries in good shape.

At a recent hearing — one of many that will tee up the frenzy of legislating — Oberstar called highway and transit system maintenance critical to ensuring that these assets remain safe and reliable in the future.

“Our extensive transit network also requires significant maintenance and repair, particularly if transit is to remain a viable and an attractive transportation option,” Oberstar said.

At the same hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, added that “our state and local governments are in the difficult position of having to make tough choices between important and necessary system expansions and critical ongoing maintenance to ensure these assets remain safe and reliable.”

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, an advisory panel established by Congress, offered other policy approaches that likely will be considered by the committee. The panel recommended public-private partnerships to help provide the needed investment, along with a controversial increase in the federal gas tax.

The highway bill isn’t the only matter on the agenda.

Oberstar may soon manage House floor consideration of a bill to fund passenger rail initiatives. Last month, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a $14.4 billion Amtrak reauthorization bill (H.R. 6003).

The measure would provide for capital and operating grants, state intercity passenger rail grants and high-speed rail grants over the next five years. The system’s last reauthorization in 1997 expired in 2002, and it has been operating on annual appropriations since.

A key component of the reauthorization bill would call on the Transportation secretary to request private proposals to finance, design and operate a high-speed rail system in the Northeast Corridor.

Labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, have expressed concern that the Northeast Corridor project will move the system toward privatization, which they contend has failed in other nations, such as Great Britain. They also are concerned that private companies won’t honor labor agreements for workers.

The outlook for a revival of Senate floor debate on a long-delayed aviation-funding bill is not quite as bright. Early last month, debate of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill was halted after an unsuccessful cloture motion to wrap up consideration of the bill, despite a deal between Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on funding the modernization of the air traffic control system.

Under the compromise, Rockefeller, the lead sponsor of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee-passed FAA bill, agreed to drop language that would have funded the upgrades with a $25-per-flight surcharge and replace it with an increase on the general aviation jet fuel tax from 21.8 cents per gallon to 36 cents per gallon. This provision is intended to provide about $240 million per year in additional Airport and Airway Trust Fund monies.

But the agreement broke down during floor debate on pending amendments. Rockefeller specifically blasted Baucus for attaching unrelated items to the measure, such as money for the Highway Trust Fund. Aviation lobbyists appear resigned to another extension of the status quo, possibly well into 2009.

Although intraparty feuding among Senate Democrats over attaching unrelated provisions may have killed hopes of passing the legislation to modernize an ailing air traffic control system this session, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation will continue to examine hearings on aspects of the air traffic control system. First up is a hearing on facility staffing, and later this month the subcommittee will hold a hearing on congestion management in the New York airspace.