February 1, 2012

Surface Transportation Reauthorization

By Christy Gullion

House Republicans released the text of their much-anticipated $260 billion, four-and-a-half-year surface transportation reauthorization bill last night.  You can read the text of the bill here (PDF).  Legislation action on the draft bill begins in earnest today as the House Natural Resources Committee marks up the bill’s energy title.  That markup, starting at 10 am today, will tackle the controversial proposal to link transportation funding to increased energy production in ANWR and along both coasts.  The House Transportation & Infrastructure is scheduled to markup the policy provisions Thursday, with House Ways & Means Committee markup of the financing expected February 3rd.  Finally, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will markup the drilling provisions on February 8th.

Here’s a partial list of what made it into the House bill, with more to come.

Highway funding: Highways would be funded at $37.4 billion in FY13, rising to $38 billion for FY16 (this is essentially level funding).

TIGER Grants:  Eliminates the TIGER discretionary grant program.

University Transportation Centers: Eliminates “Regional, Tier I, and Tier II Center” from SAFETEA-LU and replaces them with 10 Regional Centers funded at $3.5 million and 20 Standard Centers funded at $2 million.  The language directs one of the regional centers to focus on Comprehensive Transportation Safety, and one (separate) regional center to focus on Intelligent Transportation Systems.   The bill requires a new round of competition 180 days from enactment of the legislation.

Transportation Enhancements: The bill would eliminate the Transportation Enhancements set-aside, which is set at 10 percent of a state’s Surface Transportation Program funds.  This could hurt UW’s efforts to secure federal funding to improve the Burke Gilman Trail.  I understand that Reps. Tom Petri (R-WI) and Tim Johnson (R-Il) will offer amendments to restore funding to the Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School programs.

Bridge inspections: Mandates inspection standards for highway bridges and tunnels, and requires the creation of a training program for bridge inspectors.  Of particular interest to research universities that are working with composites is a section that reads:  The Secretary shall establish research and development programs… (C) The development of more durable highway and bridge infrastructure materials and systems, including the use of carbon fiber composite materials in bridge replacement and rehabilitation. We understand that this wording is in Section 7005 under Research and Development (page 626 of the draft T&I Bill).

Tolling: Significantly expands tolling on the National Highway System, including for initial construction, initial construction of a lane on an existing highway that increases its capacity, and reconstructing both interstate and non-interstate highways under certain conditions.

Truck weight: Truck weights would be allowed to be increased from 80,000 pounds on five axles to 97,000 pounds on six axles.  States could also boost weights up to 126,000 pounds on some portions of the interstate.

Minimum DUI penalties: Creates minimum penalties for driving while intoxicated, including for first-time offenders, which includes suspension of a person’s driver’s license.  In some cases driving privileges could be reinstated contingent on installation of an ignition interlock device that requires blowing sober on a Breathalyzer before the car will start. 

Amtrak: Reaches back into the 2008 law (PL 110-432) that last reauthorized Amtrak and brings back some of the passenger rail service’s authorization levels.  The bill would cut Amtrak’s authorization for operating grants for FY12 and FY13 from $616 million and $631 million respectively to $466 million and $463 million.

House Speaker Boehner will start working his caucus today to build support for quick passage of the surface transportation bill. Conservatives in his conference feel they were shut out of developing the bill and worry they will be forced into voting for a measure that they don’t support and that has little chance of passing the Senate.  House Democrats may also oppose the funding options that use drilling royalties to pay for the bill.

In the Senate, the Finance Committee mark up the revenue title of their surface transportation bill has been delay (again) until next week. The Senate version offers a two-year, $85.3 billion version of the authorization approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee late last fall. Like the House measure, it also calls for continuing spending at current levels. 

Funding issues remain the biggest obstacle to passage of either version (or a compromise bill). The main source of dollars, fuel taxes collected by the Highway Transit Fund, has been depleted because of the development of more fuel-efficient vehicles and fewer miles driven by consumers. In its new projections, the Congressional Budget Office found that the trust fund’s balance in FY11 was $22 billion, and the balance will be spent down precipitously: to $12 billion in FY12, $3 billion in FY13, and zero for the remaining 10 years. The House proposal would seek new funding for the bill from royalties by expanding oil and gas exploration along coastal waters and in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve, but the plan is likely a non-starter with many Democrats.

Congress last cleared a surface transportation bill (PL 109-59), known as SAFETEA-LU, in 2009, and the current short-term extension (PL 112-30) expires at the end of March.

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