Thursday, March 15, 2012

Senate Passes Highway Trust Fund Reauthorization Measure

Late Wednesday morning, March 14, 2012, the Senate voted 74-22 to pass a two year, $109 billion Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill, just a mere 17 days before the taxing and spending authority for federal surface transportation programs runs out on March 31, 2012. The spending level, according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former congressman, is far below the level needed to maintain America’s surface transportation facilities and expand them to meet the needs of population growth. In his remarks, LaHood described federally funded highways as “one big pothole.”

Under the Senate measure, programs for construction of bicycle paths, hiking trails, safe routes to schools, and rails to trails construction will now have to compete for funding for other so called “congestion mitigation” projects. The bill also includes toughened safety requirements for the long distance and tour bus industries, which together transport aoughly the same number of passengers annually as the nation’s airline industry. The legislation also includes a tenfold increase, to $1 billion, for funding of the credit assistance program designed to leverage private investment in revenue generating transportation projects. Past estimates show this program can generate as much as $30 in private capital for every dollar of government participation.

The ball is now in the court of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, whos own chamber’s larger version of a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization measure fell apart earlier this session. It remains to be seen whether the Senate legislation, which does not address the long term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, will fare in the House. Senate passage was completed only after competing Senate amendments, one to prohibit new tolls on existing interstates, and one to expressly permit states to impose new tolls on existing interstates, were both withdrawn. With the House in recess until next week, the suspense lingers.

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