As members of Congress prepared to return from their August district work period, much was left on its agenda with significant questions surrounding what can be accomplished prior to adjournment in October for the coming election season. Legislative successes will likely be decided very close to the Oct. 8 target adjournment date set by the House; however, the Senate target remains “to be determined.”
Whatever legislation is still unfinished in October will have its fortunes shaped by the results of the November elections. Although activity in a lame-duck Congress appears necessary, the extent of measures that may be considered in a post-November session continues to be unknown.
Surface Transportation Authorization
President Barack Obama recently announced a renewed push on transportation investment aimed at jump-starting job creation, calling for an up-front $50 billion in transportation spending that will be part of a new six-year authorization bill. With the funding announcement, the administration renewed its pledge to work with Congress and the industry on a new authorization bill that expands public transit systems, dedicates significant new funds to the New Starts program, and commits to building on the existing investments in high-speed and intercity passenger rail. The $50 billion investment is expected to be fully offset to reduce concerns over deficit spending. Details were unavailable on whether the administration will release a full six-year bill in the coming months or propose a long-term revenue source for the Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Account.
Surface transportation programs have been operating under an extension of that authority since the underlying law, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), expired last year. The latest extension, provided under the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act, expires on Dec. 31, 2010. As a result, Congress will need to pass either a long-term surface transportation authorization bill or a further short-term extension by the end of the year.
In the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) has continued to seek a solution to the revenue requirements for passage of long-term authorization. In the Senate, industry observers continue to await word of whether Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) will proceed with previously planned committee action. The Obama announcement will impact Congressional activity in this regard, although as Passenger Transport went to press it was unclear what steps Congress would take to act on the proposal. Action on an extension or long-term bill will have to occur prior to Dec. 31 to prevent another shutdown of federal transit and federal-aid highway programs and furloughs of DOT employees.
The 12 annual appropriations bills that provide agencies and programs with actual spending authority for Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 are among the must-pass legislation facing Congress.
The House Appropriations Committee initiated action on the FY 2011 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) Appropriations bill in July, and moved quickly later that month to consider the bill in the full House. The bill provides $11.3 billion for Federal Transit Administration (FTA) programs, $1.4 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail, and $75 million for Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) grants for Positive Train Control (PTC).
The House bill provides modest increases for FTA formula programs—to $600 million—but that will require additional action by the authorizing committees. High-speed and intercity rail funding saw an allocation above the Obama administration’s budget request, albeit significantly below the prior year’s allocation. The bill did provide a major increase for PTC—a pleasant surprise that had been sought by APTA and commuter rail operators.
The Senate Appropriations Committee looked to pass its own version of THUD late in July; the full committee completed its markup prior to the August recess, but no time remained for the full Senate to consider the bill. The Senate committee did not provide the extra funding for FTA formula programs that the House did, citing uncertainty over long-term authorization issues.
Overall, the Senate committee bill largely follows the flat funding levels for FTA programs and the administration’s funding request for high-speed and intercity rail programs. But the Senate actually improved on the House’s support for PTC grants, doubling the funds available to the FRA.
Three of the 12 annual appropriations bills have yet to see any action in Congress, and the relative progress by both the House and Senate on transportation appropriations could indicate that the THUD bill will serve as a legislative vehicle for an omnibus appropriations bill. The overall limited progress on all bills indicates that a continuing resolution will be necessary before the October adjournment.
Tax legislation remains a priority for public transportation as many agencies continue to await legislation extending a valuable tax credit based on usage of such alternative fuels as natural gas. “Tax extenders” legislation—including the alternative fuels tax credit—passed both the House and Senate on multiple occasions, but in the end cost concerns and a deal over the extension of unemployment benefits led to the omission of the alternative fuels tax credit and other tax extenders from the final package.
Deficit issues have had an impact on all legislation, even those with broad, bipartisan support, as members who back the underlying legislation ask for budgetary offsets before agreeing to passage.
Interest remains over a variety of “big issue” tax bills, such as small business tax relief and lending expansion, extension of middle-class tax cuts, estate tax, and energy tax legislation. The fact that tax legislation remains prominent on the congressional agenda means that opportunities remain for the alternative fuels tax credit and a much sought-after extension of transit commuter tax benefits. The latter faces expiration on Dec. 31, 2010, of the benefit level established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which raised the transit benefit to parity with commuter parking benefits.
Congress may only have one final opportunity to pass a tax bill this year, and so it could wind up being a very large and comprehensive package of extensions and reforms.
Safety and Security
The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs approved comprehensive rail transit safety legislation in late June to give DOT safety oversight authority for U.S. transit systems. The legislation would extend authority to DOT to set standards and regulations for transit safety, require annual safety plans, increase safety training, and set up more robust state safety oversight programs for rail transit safety. APTA worked very closely with the Senate in shaping the legislation, and the resulting bill addressed many industry views and concerns. The committee has shown an interest in bringing the legislation to the full Senate for consideration, but senators have raised objections to its expedited consideration. Transportation leaders in the House have also given the issue close review and will take up the legislation should the Senate be able to move its bill in the waning days of the 111th Congress.
In the area of security, following the unanimous Senate confirmation of John Pistole as administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the prospects for TSA authorization legislation may have increased. Pistole has cited his intent to place a higher priority on transit and rail security, providing encouragement to transit leaders. The House had moved TSA authorization legislation last year, including provisions affecting the Transit Security Grant Program, but difficulties surrounding prior nominees had hampered further consideration. The confirmation of Pistole may bring new life to TSA legislation.
Congress will have approximately four weeks of work before it wraps up and the members head home for the November election. Activity during a lame-duck Congress is virtually assured, but how much will be left on the table and what accomplishments might be within reach during November and December will certainly hinge on the tone and atmosphere following Election Day.