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House Considers Options on Highway Bill

Before leaving town for a two-week Easter recess, Congress passed a “clean” 90-day extension of Highway Trust Fund taxes, spending authority and program funding by a vote of 266 to 158 in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate. The president signed the extension on March 30.

Faced with new set-backs, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) must once again develop a game plan on a House version of a surface transportation reauthorization bill that will somehow receive 218 votes, a simple majority, by finding enough support from several different factions within his own caucus, or from willing Democrats, according to the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA). Although the new extension runs through June 30, the window for getting something passed in the House is much sooner than that if there is to be any meaningful conference with the Senate, and Boehner indicated at his weekly press conference March 29 that his chamber will take up the highway bill – in whatever shape it may take – when Congress returns to Washington April 16.

The timing of the two-week break may not appear to be helpful when a bill of this magnitude must be passed, but as the debate over the 90-day extension in both chambers became bitterly partisan last week, time apart may allow both sides to take a deep breath. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) continues to press for his five-year, $260 billion bill, H.R.7, which has been modified to restore funding for Mass Transit under the Highway Trust Fund, as well as other minor tweaks.

Democrats question the need for an additional three months, pointing to the Senate-passed, two-year $109 billion bill as the only alternative. Boehner must decide which of these two options is best or forge his own bill, one that will almost certainly include his favored provisions – expanding oil and gas exploration and production to increase revenues into the HTF.

NSSGA’s message remains the same over the two-week Easter recess: Congress must act now to pass a multi-year bill that maintains level funding at a minimum.

“We commend the House of Representatives and Senate for passing legislation to ensure the continued operation of the federal highway and public transportation programs as the 2012 construction season begins cranking up,” said the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC) in a statement. “This action notwithstanding, extension after extension of these programs is no substitute for a multi-year reauthorization that could begin to address the nation's staggering infrastructure challenges. The current surface transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, expired more than 910 days ago. We respect the legislative process and the right of both the House and Senate to pass their own bill. With an overwhelming bipartisan majority, the Senate has passed its multi-year bill. It is now the responsibility of the House of Representatives to either advance its own alternative or utilize another mechanism to allow the two chambers to reconcile their differences.”

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Executive Director John Horsley said, “Congress is to be commended today for reaching agreement on an extension of surface transportation legislation that will keep the nation's highway and transit programs running for another 90 days. The clock has been reset and we are optimistic that the House and Senate will use the time available to settle on a new, long-term reauthorization. Passing such a bill will remove the uncertainty that is already causing a number of state departments of transportation to delay billions of dollars worth of highway projects that would otherwise create hundreds of thousands of American jobs.”