August 17, 2009
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Transportation Legislation Wrap-Up: Congressional Action Needed in September
BY BRIAN M. TYNAN, APTA Senior Legislative Representative
When Congress returns from its August recess on Sept. 8, it will focus on several important transportation-related measures. The debate over a major health care bill overall will likely dominate the discussion in Washington, but critical measures dealing with transportation and the environment will also demand action.
Surface Transportation Authorization/Transportation Trust Funds
Before Congress adjourned, it passed legislation transferring $7 billion from the U.S. Treasury to the Highway Trust Fund to ensure the fund’s solvency through August and September. President Barack Obama signed the legislation on Aug. 7.
The Mass Transit Account, while in decline, is projected to have sufficient resources through at least the end of Fiscal Year 2010.
Legislation transferring general fund dollars to the trust funds was necessary to ensure that states would be able to receive timely reimbursement for work done during the next two months, which are traditionally heavy months for transportation construction.
The health of the trust funds has played a significant role in the debate over a long-term surface transportation authorization bill. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-MN) has worked to gain support for his six-year legislation that sets federal transportation policy and spending limits for public transportation, rail, highway, and bridge programs. The bipartisan legislation, jointly introduced by the leaders of T&I, increases funding for public transportation by 90 percent over the present funding levels, and includes many policy changes long-sought by the public transit industry. The Obama Administration, however, has continued to press to extend the existing programs for 18 months.
The current law—the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act-A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)—expires expires Sept. 30; it must either be extended or entirely rewritten to continue federal spending on Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal Highway Administration programs.
Congressional leaders have been split on the issue of the 18-month extension proposal versus working in the immediate term to complete a full authorization bill. The most challenging aspect of the legislation remains the question of how to provide new revenues or enhance existing revenues into the trust funds.
Safety Issues Coming to the Forefront
Congress and the administration have focused of late on safety. This includes Congressional hearings linking safety concerns to needed investment; new legislation being offered to alter current oversight and regulations; and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood convening a summit of senior transportation officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives, members of Congress, and academics to study current issues regarding transportation safety.
It is likely that these matters will continue to play into efforts to produce an authorization bill, affecting both momentum and substance.
The completion of the annual appropriations bills—to fund all federal agencies and programs for Fiscal Year 2010—awaits elected officials upon their return. Congress has made significant progress on the appropriations front, with the House of Representatives having completed all of its bills and the Senate completing five out of 12. However, the Senate must still take up the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) appropriations bill, and that bill and all others will require conference committee negotiations.
The House THUD bill includes $8.34 billion in formula grants for public transportation, $1.8 billion for New Starts, and $4 billion for high-speed rail. The Senate THUD Appropriations Subcommittee includes $480 million more for New Starts than the House-approved funding level, $1.1 billion for grants to support multi-modal transportation projects, and $1.2 billion for intercity and high-speed rail.
The fiscal year ends Sept. 30; a continuing resolution will be required for the agencies funded by those bills that remain incomplete at that time.
Senate appropriators have reported out a bill that provides a significant increase in funding for the FTA New Starts program—$480 million more than the House and the administration’s budget—while making changes in Bus and Formula accounts similar to those made in the bill passed by the House. The Senate committee’s bill also provides $1.2 billion to high-speed and intercity rail vs. the House’s proposal of a potential $4 billion. Funds were also allocated in the Senate bill for a multimodal competitive grant program, whereas the House provided no such allocation.
Additionally, several provisions making statutory changes to the federal transit program will be points for debate when the bill reaches the Senate floor.
Once the Senate completes its bill, the House-Senate negotiations will begin; these will affect the fate of both the increase in funding for New Starts (Senate) and for high-speed and intercity rail (House). Transportation industry advocates will possibly see a continuing resolution for at least the beginning of October, as Senate floor consideration and conference committee negotiations will likely go beyond the Sept. 30 fiscal year end date.
The outlook for activity on climate change legislation also relies heavily on progress on health care legislation. In the short term, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has asked the multiple committees that will work on the bill to complete their efforts by the end of September, with the potential for full Senate action taking place in October.
The House earlier this year completed its action on H.R. 2454, the “American Clean Energy and Security Act.” The bill was introduced by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Edward Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
Until the Senate completes its action on the bill, no timetable on its final version can be estimated.