Stop Sign Ahead for Highway Bill

Posted July 14, 2009 at 6:33pm

As the 2005 highway bill nears its Sept. 30 expiration date, the House and Senate authorizing committees are taking diametrically opposed approaches to the bill, with the future of thousands of earmarks — worth billions of dollars — hanging in the balance.

The bipartisan leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is pushing for Congress to pass a complete overhaul of the nation’s surface transportation programs in the next few weeks, complete with the usual list of specific local projects that are always attached to a highway bill.

But the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, with the support of the White House, is preparing to pass a simple extension of the 2005 highway bill — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, known by its clunky acronym SAFETEA-LU — that would extend existing programs through March 2011.

Earmarks are always a central element of the highway bill — and a central focus of debate. The last full authorization included the infamous $300 million “Bridge to Nowhere— project in Alaska.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) floated a proposed reauthorization bill last month and held a joint press conference emphasizing the urgency of passing a full reauthorization. An 18-month extension of the current bill “puts a Damocles sword of uncertainty over the future of transportation,— Oberstar said. “It is unacceptable.—

Mica agreed. “We don’t want an 18-month bill which is a temporary patch,— he said. “We want a 72-month solution.—

But Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is proceeding with the expectation of passing a simple extension.

In a Tuesday e-mail to Democratic transportation aides, Boxer’s staff wrote, “The Committee on Environment and Public Works is currently working on an 18-month extension. … We anticipate a clean extension of SAFETEA-LU.—

[IMGCAP(1)]The e-mail left the door open to the possibility of adding earmarks to the bill. In order to be “prepared for all possibilities … Senator Boxer wants to know your boss’ top priority projects,— the e-mail said, with forms attached for Senators to provide details of earmark requests and certify that they have no financial interest in the projects.

But Democratic and Republican aides agreed that suggestion was simply an attempt by Boxer to be prepared if the House somehow does manage to pass a comprehensive reauthorization bill in the next few weeks and the Senate needs to produce a full bill to take to conference. She has indicated no intention of pursuing a comprehensive overhaul in the next few weeks.

Oberstar and Mica have already solicited earmark requests from their colleagues, but the committee will not publicly release the list of projects in the bill until it goes to markup, which at the moment appears to hinge on the schedule of the Ways and Means Committee.

Committee spokesman Jim Berard said Oberstar plans to mark up the reauthorization at the same time Ways and Means goes to markup with the revenue portion of the bill. Congress will have to generate close to $500 million in revenues to pay for the programs in the bill, and even Mica and Oberstar have not yet figured out where that money is going to come from.

But the Ways and Means Committee is absorbed in trying to find a way to pay for the president’s signature health care overhaul, and House sources in both parties were skeptical that the committee would have time in the next month or so to also hammer out a whole new financing scheme for the nation’s roads and rails.

The other complicating factor is that the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for ongoing road construction projects, is running low on funds and will need an infusion of cash by the end of August to keep it solvent. Berard said the most likely approach to solving this problem is moving about $7 billion from the general treasury into the Highway Trust Fund to keep the fund flush while reauthorization talks continue.

But Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Tuesday that if the committee goes ahead with the 18-month extension as planned, “the trust fund will require a total of $20 billion to get through this 18-month period.—