Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, has been the most-forceful congressional proponent of enacting a full six-year authorization for highway, transit, safety, and high-speed rail programs. Oberstar's committee has drafted a $500 billion measure to fund transportation through 2015.
Until Wednesday, Oberstar repeatedly said there would not be a temporary extension for any length of time, insisting Congress must move a six-year bill. The Obama administration has requested an 18-month extension, however, and key Senate committees have endorsed that idea.
With only two weeks until authority for federal surface transportation programs is set to lapse, Washington media outlets reported Wednesday that Oberstar intends to have his committee mark up a bill next week to extend current programs and funding levels until the end of this calendar year. That idea had been floated last week by House Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-OR.
Supporters have touted the transportation authorization measure as the next big jobs bill, noting the substantial increase in funding it would authorize would put millions of Americans to work. But the House Ways and Means Committee has yet to approve revenue raisers needed to fully fund the half-trillion-dollar proposal.
"People want things that will create jobs," said House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra of California. "And the highway bill is about as direct an infusion of resources into the economy as you can find."
Oberstar is reportedly pushing major business and industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, AAA, and the American Trucking Associations to support a revenue increase to pay for the bill.
In a column published Monday in the Washington newspaper Politico, Oberstar wrote that a long-term bill is critical to not only pump more money into the nation's transportation infrastructure but also to enact vital reforms of how that money is allocated to and spent by state transportation departments.
"These objectives can be reached only through the passage of a robust and transformational long-term surface transportation authorization that charts a bold new path for the future of the nation's transportation network, a bill such as the one now pending in the committee," Oberstar wrote. "Our bill builds upon the job opportunities created by the recovery act. By enacting it now, we can continue to build ourselves out of this recession. And once the nation's economy has emerged from this downturn, it will rest on an infrastructure foundation that is safer, stronger, more efficient, and more environmentally sustainable for all Americans. Any delay would risk losing the momentum and the progress made under the recovery act."
Senate Expected to Consider 18-Month Extension with Extra Money for Highway Trust Fund
The Senate is soon anticipated to consider a bill that would extend federal surface transportation programs through March 2011 at current funding levels. Current revenue into the Highway Trust Fund is inadequate to support continuing existing spending levels, however, so the Senate bill would transfer $19.8 billion from the government's General Fund into the Highway Trust Fund to cover the deficit. The money represents reimbursements to the trust fund of $12.5 billion in interest payments not made since 1999 and $7.3 billion for emergency spending taken out of the trust fund in recent years and not replenished.
Senate leaders said this week there is no specific timetable for bringing the measure to the floor. The Senate is expected to continue debating appropriations bills next week.