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Transportation Bills Stall

According to the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA), the House and Senate are considering different versions of surface transportation reauthorization. The legislative effort hit a roadblock as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) postponed a vote on the bill after the legislation struggled to gain traction among lawmakers.

Lawmakers had filed 293 amendments to H.R. 7 with the House Rules Committee. The House Republican’s proposed bill spends about $260 billion over nearly five years, but the bill has drawn fire from the left and the right. To build support with tea partiers for such a large spending bill, GOP leaders added sweeteners designed to appeal to conservatives, such as expanded offshore oil and gas drilling, transfer of decision-making on the Keystone pipeline and a requirement that federal employees pay more toward their pensions. All of these are non-starters with Democratic lawmakers, so Republicans have acknowledged they will have to pass this legislation on a purely partisan basis. To do so, Republican leaders cannot afford more than 25 defections from their own ranks.

Additionally, the bill's language, which removes transit funding from the Highway Trust Fund to a new Alternative Transportation Account funded for five years by a $40 billion General Fund transfer, has riled urban lawmakers, including New York and Chicago metro-area Republicans who may wind up voting against the bill. An amendment sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to restore a portion of the fuel tax revenues for transit has garnered seven Republicans co-sponsors.

The bill also eliminates locally popular federal programs that help underwrite bike paths, bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects, including the Safe Routes to School program, in order to concentrate funding on highways – all of which are causing great consternation.

The president pledged to veto the House version of the highway reauthorization on Feb. 14.

Debate began on the Senate bill, S.1813, with a strongly bipartisan procedural vote of 85 to11. The bill is co-authored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ideological opposites who have managed to overcome substantial disagreement in an effort to pass a bill.

President Obama chimed in on Feb. 13 with his own plan to spend nearly half a trillion dollars over six years on transportation infrastructure. But the president's plan is so much grander than anything Congress is likely to approve that the administration put its weight behind the Senate bill, a bipartisan plan that more modestly proposes to spend $109 billion over less than two years.

It was full speed ahead until non-germane amendments began to be offered to the highway bill, including an amendment on contraception and an amendment to withhold assistance to Egypt until Americans being held there are released. The non-germane amendments threaten to derail the bill.

Like the House, the Senate has been hampered by a shortfall between current spending levels and fuel tax revenues, which are the main source of funding for transportation programs. Democratic leadership has struggled to fill the funding gap of around $12 billion in the Senate bill. The Senate Finance Committee approved financing offsets that score around $9 billion, but still fall short of what is needed. Negotiations continue on the funding provisions of the bill.

Reductions in driving due to the economy as well as more fuel-efficient vehicles have lowered tax revenues. The Congressional Budget Office projects the Highway Trust Fund will go broke sometime in the 2013 federal budget year.

Without an infusion of cash from somewhere, the Transportation Department could be forced to slow down reimbursements to states for highway construction and other transportation projects. That, in turn, could lead to thousands of lost jobs. Indecision about how to shore up the Highway Trust Fund has long stymied efforts to pass a transportation plan. The last long-term plan expired in 2009. Congress has kept programs going through a series of eight short-term extensions. The current extension expires March 31.