Senate Starts Work on New Transport Bill, With House Version as a Guide

The Senate today took its first steps towards voting on a new
long-term federal transportation bill, with environment committee
chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) vowing to take up a successor to the 2005 infrastructure law before 2011 and indicating she would use the House’s already-introduced version as a framework.

091109_inhofe_boxer_ap_297.jpgSenate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), at right, with ranking Republican Jim Inhofe (OK). (Photo: Politico)

Boxer
described today’s hearing in her panel as "the kickoff" of the upper
chamber’s drafting of new legislation governing U.S. road, transit,
bridge, port, and rail policy. "Our intention is to hold a series of
hearings and write the bill while you are still here and while Senator [George] Voinovich [R-OH] is still here," she told Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), who will retire at the end of the year.

Such willingness to consider a new infrastructure bill before the Obama administration’s preferred timeframe
of next spring could help thaw the frosty relations between Boxer’s
panel and the House transportation committee, where chairman Jim
Oberstar (D-MN) has raged against upper-chamber inaction for months.

But
lawmakers and industry lobbies have a long way to go before they can
sing from the same hymnal on the next transportation bill. Boxer asked
representatives of the four lobbies appearing today — the American
Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), the National Construction Alliance (NCA) and the Associated General Contractors (AGC) — to parse Oberstar’s bill "literally, with a pen" and let senators know which provisions they favored or disliked.

"We’re
going to take their bill and work from it," Boxer said of the House,
which has proposed a $500 billion plan that streamlines 108 categories
of formula-based federal transportation spending into four and includes
dedicated funding for metropolitan area priorities.

Neither
the transit industry nor transportation reform advocacy groups had a
representative at the hearing. The four witnesses largely limited their
comments to the economic need for a new long-term federal bill, with
former AASHTO president Pete Rahn endorsing the price tag of the House
bill but suggesting that he viewed it as overly solicitous to transit.

"We need a balanced bill that increases funding for
both highways and transit," said Rahn, who leads the Missouri state DOT.

And
though the biggest stumbling block facing the next federal transport
bill — namely, the lack of sufficient gas tax revenue to pay for it —
was lamented widely, few offered concrete solutions that would help
Congress move forward more quickly.

"The problem
we have in infrastructure is not ways to borrow more money," Rahn replied to a question about Build America Bonds, a successful if occasionally controversial infrastructure financing tool established in last year’s stimulus law. "We need to
find a way to pay for improvements … We’ve now topped out the credit card."

Rahn urged lawmakers to address the declining utility
of the gas tax, pointing to a "conflict" between its continued role as
Washington’s transportation revenue-raiser and the growing
acknowledgment that oil consumption needs to decrease for environmental
and national security reasons.

Griffith Company
president Tom Foss, speaking for the AGC, said that industry groups are
open to other options, such as increased tolling or an eventual
transition to a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax. Still, he added, "the
gas tax is still best way
to fund" federal transportation law because "we can advertise [it] to
the general population."

The hearing took place as the House prepares to vote
as soon as tomorrow on a $15 billion jobs bill, already cleared by the
Senate, that would extend the 2005 transport law until year’s end.
Boxer and fellow senators asked the witnesses to underscore the
importance of that 10-month extension in conversations with the House,
where some Democrats remain reluctant to embrace the upper chamber’s
jobs package.

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