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Congress moving forward with transportation extensions

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House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is continuing his effort to pass a six-year reauthorization of surface transportation policy while Congress takes steps to extend the 2005 federal law through 2010.

On March 4, the House passed a bill (H.R. 2847) that provides an extension of  transportation policy until the end of the year, shores up the depleted Highway Trust Fund and expands a popular infrastructure bond program.

The Senate is expected to take up the legislation after it completes work on a package of tax policy extensions, according to an aide with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But Republicans could force yet another series of procedural votes that would slow the bill's progress.

Earlier in the week of March 1, Obama signed a 30-day extension of surface transportation law that runs through March, giving Congress until the end of the month to move forward with a longer-term extension of the SAFETEA-LU, the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy of Users.

The extension included in this legislation “provides Congress with the opportunity to work toward passage of a long-term surface transportation authorization bill this year,” Oberstar said. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has publicly backed passage of comprehensive long-term legislation.

The bill provides $63.5 billion for fiscal year 2010 and $77 billion for the programs from Oct. 1, 2009 through the end of this year, while providing a $21 billion increase over current funding levels under the continuing resolution.

The legislation also calls for a transfer of $19.5 billion from the general fund into the Highway Trust Fund, covering project commitments through 2011. It allows the fund to collect interest for the first time since 1998 and shifts the burden of paying for motor fuel tax exemptions to the general fund.

The bill didn't change the distribution of $932 million in transportation funds from two heavily earmarked programs favoring only a handful of states, a concern of transportation panel lawmakers from both parties. Oberstar has assurances from Pelosi and Reid the change will be included in future legislation. In the meantime, the lawmakers will ask DOT not to spend any of the nearly $1 billion in question until after the distribution is altered.

The measure also adjusts the spending baseline for highway and transit spending, used to determine spending for future legislation, restoring it to the level it was before two separate rescissions cut about $12 billion from the programs.

In addition, the bill includes an expansion of the Build America subsidy bonding program used by state and local governments to cut financing costs for infrastructure projects, letting certain school construction and clean energy projects utilize the program.

The measure also continues the mandate that 10 percent of transportation funds be spent through small businesses run by “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.”

Extension to Fed Surface Transportation Law

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Congress recently approved an extension of the 2005 federal surface transportation law through the end of March as part of a Defense Department fiscal 2010 spending bill.

The measure (H.R. 3326) was signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 19.

Before adjourning for the holiday recess, House lawmakers also passed a $154 billion jobs bill (H.R. 2847) that would allocate $36 billion for highways and transit.

The bill includes an extension of SAFETEA-LU through the end of fiscal 2010 as lawmakers forge ahead on a multiyear, several-hundred-billion-dollar bill.

The House, Senate and Obama administration haven't built any consensus on what should be included in a multiyear package. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) has pushed for his proposal, while the administration and the Senate have urged Congress to approve an 18-month extension through March 2011.

Transportation legislative highlights

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Several avenues have emerged for lawmakers to move forward with highway and transit infrastructure spending but lawmakers continue to wrangle over specifics. 

In the near-term, $50 billion to $100 billion in spending for shovel-ready projects could be included in a multi-pronged "jobs bill" under development.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is eyeing a $70-billion package of ready-to-go projects set out by groups such as the American Public Transportation Association, representing regional transit agencies, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The groups recently outlined  9,500 ready-to-go projects – $15 billion in transit and $48 in highway projects.

The Obama administration, which at first appeared to reject the inclusion of infrastructure spending in a jobs bill, announced a $50-billion proposal earlier this week for transit, roads, bridges and ports.

Timing on a jobs bill is still unclear.

Senate leaders have said they'll take up a measure in January while House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said this week that the House may move before the holiday recess. He also suggested that infrastructure spending will likely come in several stages across multiple economic stimulus measures in what he sees as an effort to maintain employment and jobs.

Another House proposal floating around would shift $100 billion from the general fund to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, covering the first two years of Oberstar's six-year bill while a financing mechanism is worked out to pay for the entire measure.

The idea to front-load the larger bill has gained support from several governors including Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell (D) and California Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. But some highway groups are concerned that the move would give appropriators too much control over transportation spending, according to a recent CQ story.

House leaders and Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) are taking the lead on the jobs bill and would likely control the amount of infrastructure spending, according to an Oberstar spokesman.

Still looming is another extension to the 2005 federal transportation law before current stopgap funding expires Dec. 18, the only funding option right now with a hard and fast deadline.

On that front, there still isn't any consensus on how to move forward.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is pushing for a six-month extension while Oberstar is trying to forge an agreement that would include a promise to consider the larger bill within at least that six-month time frame.

Oberstar is in talks with the Senate on not just the length but what should be included in the extension, according to a spokesman. Oberstar has an “open mind” but he wants a solid proposal before he agrees to anything.”

Transportation bill update

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Although lawmakers haven't made any headway on long-term transportation legislation, some funding for the nation's crumbling roads and bridges will probably land in a jobs-creation package Democratic leaders are angling to consider next month and into the new year.

In recent weeks, transportation policy has moved up the Congressional and White House agendas as leaders consider ways to spur job growth and combat a 10.2 percent unemployment rate.

So far, Congress has passed two short-term extensions since the 2005 transportation law expired Sept. 30, taking a pass on a $500-billion, six-year reauthorization bill proposed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.).

House leaders have set a Dec. 18 deadline to vote on a jobs bill –- matching the expiration date of the current transportation extension -- that could include a mix of infrastructure spending, tax credits for employers and aid to states.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has directed several House committees to determine the amount to include in the measure for infrastructure projects. 

For months, Oberstar and several other lawmakers including Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) have argued that passage of a transportation bill or targeted infrastructure spending could spur job growth and provide a boost to the ailing economy.

Voinovich recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama writing: “I believe that a transportation reauthorization bill is critical to job creation, improving the nation's transportation infrastructure and reducing our carbon footprint.” He is pushing for passage of a comprehensive bill by next spring.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of seven Senators from the committees of jurisdiction wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) requesting a cloture vote to move forward with a six-month extension that would likely leave the 2005 formulas in place.

That extension stalled in September when some fiscal conservatives suggested tapping leftover money from the financial bailout to pay for the measure.

At this point, Oberstar isn't “laying down any markers” for the next extension, according to a committee spokesman.

Earlier this month, Obama said his economic team was looking at ways to  provide more cash to transportation projects around the country. Previously, the White House had focused its attention on passage an 18-month extension of current law.

Whatever the actual impact of a jobs bill or a six-month extension on jobs, Oberstar's major priorities  –– cutting carbon dioxide emissions, reducing vehicle traffic along with the nation's demand for oil –- will have to wait for now.