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AASHTO Journal

President's Signature Extends Highway & Transit Programs for 7 Months
President Barack Obama signed into law a measure today that extends until Sept. 30 federal highway and transit programs that had been slated to expire tonight. The seven-month extension averts a suspension of reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the states for their ongoing surface transportation improvement projects, as occurred last March when a similar extension was delayed, and allows states to continue to commit projects just in time for the construction season to begin in earnest. 

The Senate approved the legislation, HR 662, by voice vote late Thursday afternoon. The Senate's vote came without debate in the midst of consideration of an unrelated measure to reform U.S. patent laws. The House of Representatives had voted 421-4 Wednesday afternoon to pass the bill.

"We're pleased that Congress and President Obama acted this week to extend federal highway and transit programs by seven months, allowing thousands of construction projects state departments of transportation have planned or under construction to move forward, uninterrupted," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "Now we set about the hard work of getting a multiyear reauthorization in place later this year. This essential legislation will allow states to continue to preserve and modernize the surface transportation systems that individuals, families, and businesses depend on everyday. We must get this done."

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-California, said in a statement that the seven-month extension of Fiscal Year 2009 funding levels for highways and mass transit will save and create jobs in the construction industry and help get the economy back on track.

"With the construction season upon us, this extension is especially important because it will give states the certainty they need to award contracts and get projects underway," she said. "This will help ensure that jobs are saved and created in California and across the country. I am continuing to work with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle on a new surface transportation bill for the 21st century. Our goal is to get this legislation enacted by the end of this year."

In a statement issued Thursday evening after Senate passage of the bill, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Florida, said the extension will provide some stability for state transportation departments to continue planning and constructing transportation projects through the summer construction season.

"This extension of transportation programs will allow more time for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to develop a fiscally responsible, long-term reauthorization of transportation programs to create jobs and build our nation's infrastructure," Mica said.

The new law extends until the end of this federal fiscal year the 2005 highway and transit authorization law -- the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, commonly known as "SAFETEA-LU." Expenditure authority for the Highway Trust Fund would also continue through Sept. 30. This is the seventh short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU, which expired Sept. 30, 2009.

Support for Extension Nearly Unanimous

During less than an hour of debate on the House floor Wednesday, no representatives spoke against the extension. Several members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee urged action on moving forward a long-term reauthorization.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon and ranking minority member of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said the United States is falling behind many other nations when it comes to investing in transportation infrastructure.

"We have the worst infrastructure of any modern nation on Earth," DeFazio said. "It's not right. It doesn't serve our businesses or communities well."

DeFazio noted the Senate earlier Wednesday had passed and sent to the president a two-week continuing resolution (House Joint Resolution 44) extending government funding from Friday to March 18, a measure that includes nearly $1 billion in cuts to transportation programs including a $650 million reduction in highway spending for this fiscal year compared to Fiscal Year 2010, rescission of $293 million in unspent transportation earmarks from previous years, and a $25 million reduction in the Rail Line Relocation and Improvement program. (see related story)

"Rebuilding our infrastructure -- this is the last place we should cut," he said. "Unfortunately, some cuts have already been proposed and made in transportation. That's not where we should be cutting. Those who would advocate further cuts are wrong."

Obama last month proposed a $556 billion six-year surface transportation reauthorization as part of his FY 2012 budget request. (see Feb. 18 AASHTO Journal story) It did not issue recommendations on how to pay for the bill, however.

LaHood, Mica Address Reauthorization Goals at AASHTO Legislative Conference

State transportation department leaders, gathered in Washington for AASHTO's Washington Briefing, spread out across Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon to meet with representatives and senators to urge their support for extending federal highway and transit programs immediately, and completing work on a multiyear surface transportation reauthorization bill in the next few months.

Wednesday morning, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told AASHTO's Washington Briefing that the administration is still working on specific legislative language for the reauthorization bill. LaHood said he hopes Congress and the White House can finish such a bill by this summer, or he fears action will be delayed indefinitely as the 2012 presidential campaign season begins to heat up this fall.

"By August, there will be a transportation bill on the president's desk that he will sign," LaHood answered when asked about his goal for reauthorization. "If we don't get something significant done this year, I think it will be difficult beyond this year because next year is election year. This is the time to do it."

LaHood said that while the president continues to oppose increasing the federal gasoline and diesel taxes to greatly increase the money available in the Highway Trust Fund to pay for additional state highway and transportation projects, the administration supports easing federal restrictions on states placing tolls on existing roads to help finance for new construction. But he signaled the administration does not favor a complete repeal of the federal prohibition on tolling interstate highways built after 1956.

"If states come to us with good plans for tolling, we will look at them very carefully," LaHood said. "Tolling has to be part of the mix. You can raise a lot of money with tolls if states decide that's what we want. As long as you are building more capacity, that is what we are going to look at."

A video of LaHood's remarks is available at bit.ly/LaHoodAASHTO0302. LaHood also posted a blog entry Wednesday on his remarks at the Washington Briefing.

Mica told the Washington Briefing on Wednesday morning that his first priority for a long-term reauthorization bill is to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund to avoid any more transfers of general government revenue, as have occurred in each of the past three fiscal years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the fund's Highway Account could run dry in Fiscal Year 2012. (see Jan. 28 AASHTO Journal story)

"The second thing is we need to look at every dollar that's sitting anywhere, that hasn't been expended, that has been authorized but not used. Any program that doesn't work -- we need to get that money elsewhere in the system," Mica said. "The third part of the plan, of course, is you have to do some creative financing and leveraging. Look at every program we have that works well, and make it better."

Mica stressed the need to speed up project delivery.

"We've got to figure out a way to deliver these projects faster," he said. "Nobody is talking about running over any environmental rule or regulation. We are not talking about eliminating people's rights for redress in the judicial process. But we can do things concurrently rather than consecutively."

A video of Mica's remarks is available at bit.ly/MicaAASHTO0302.

Effort to Strike Alaska Bridge Earmarks Defeated

On the House floor, the minority was allowed to offer one motion to send the bill back to committee for modification. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, offered a motion to return the bill to the House T&I Committee with instructions to add language rescinding $183 million in unspent earmarks for the state of Alaska to construct a bridge connecting Ketchikan with Gravina Island plus another bridge across Knik Arm linking Anchorage with mostly undeveloped land across the water. Polis said the state has not moved ahead with these two projects and argued in favor of canceling the earmarks so the funds can be officially wiped off the government's books.

Mica spoke briefly against the motion, calling it nothing but "smoke and mirrors." The motion failed by a vote of 246-181.

Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for Mica, said in an e-mail Thursday that the bridge earmarks were already eliminated in a Fiscal Year 2006 appropriations bill. 

"The motion would have taken away funding for other Alaska transportation projects," Harclerode said.

3/4/2011
Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.