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A Quick Guide to the State of Transpo Policy on Capitol Hill

9:17 AM PDT on June 22, 2015

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Coming back to Streetsblog after a few months away, I needed to get up to speed on the latest with transportation-related legislation, and I thought some of you might too. Here’s what you need to know:

Appropriations

House Republicans passed a pretty terrible Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill last week, decimating the TIGER grant program, cutting $200 million from New Starts for transit, and reducing Amtrak’s budget by $240 million. Some amendments proposing even more extreme spending cuts were stripped out, thankfully.

The president has threatened to veto the bill. In days gone by, the Senate could be counted on to check the excesses of the House, but with the upper chamber now under GOP control, it’s unclear what kind of bill they’ll produce. The Senate hasn’t produced one yet. It seems possible that some of the House bill’s most painful cuts -- particularly to TIGER -- might be reversed, but many of them will remain. Look for a Senate proposal in the next couple of weeks.

Transportation Bill Extension

Last year, before the MAP-21 transportation law expired (and only days before the money was about to run dry), Congress extended it until May 31. Miraculously, in May, they found two months of funding still available (for the not-so-miraculous reason that Americans drove more than projected and gas tax receipts were unexpectedly high). So, when May 31 came, it was pretty easy for Congress to extend the bill by two months without finding any new money.

But the days of easy extensions are over. All the pensions have been smoothed, the LUST funds raided -- there’s no more loose change under the cushions to fund transportation.

Democrats’ Challenge and a New Bill

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats challenged Republicans to come up with a long-term bill in the next 45 days, instead of just another extension. That same day, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee announced that it would mark up a six-year transportation bill on June 24.

Under the chairmanship of Barbara Boxer, EPW was able to pass bills out of committee with bipartisan support. Observers will be watching to see if current chair Jim Inhofe is as open to compromise to bring his Democratic colleagues along, or if the bill he’ll introduce will be a conservative wish list. Inhofe is in favor of raising revenues for highways -- and only for highways. Jettisoning bike/ped funding is high on Inhofe's wish list for a new bill.

But back to the Dems' 45-day challenge. It's a little unclear what their game plan is here. Would Democrats agree to another short extension to give them time to hammer out the EPW bill if they’re making progress? Would the Democrats really vote against a short-term extension, if killing it would shut down the transportation program? Do they have any viable ideas to fund a long-term bill?

Speaking of funding, on Wednesday the House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing on transportation funding since before MAP-21 passed in 2012. It seemed like a sign they were going to take the issue seriously -- until Chair Paul Ryan opened the meeting by insisting that under no circumstances were they going to raise the gas tax.

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