Transportation Reauthorization

Transportation ReauthorizationThe U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee led by Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-OK) wasted little time after Congress’ return from the August recess to adopt a short-term extension of the surface-transportation legislation, Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA; P.L. 109-59). SAFETEA-LU is set to expire at the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30, 2011. The adopted extension funds highway programs at current levels through January 31, 2012.

The republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives responded by adopting  a six- month funding extension (at current levels) for surface-transportation and a four month funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration.

With funding deadlines fast approaching and to prevent funding lapses, the U.S. Senate will adopt the same extension provisions later this week.

6 Year Plan instead of extensions?

This is the eighth extension of SAFETEA-LU and was adopted to give Congress more time to work out stark differences that exist between the U.S. House Transportation Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on a long-term solution. U.S. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) is proposing a long-term, six-year reauthorization plan that spends $35 billion per year – the amount generated by the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. Chairman Mica claims the six-year timeframe allows state and local governments to better plan long-term transportation projects and thus create more permanent jobs. The proposal also raises the cap on federal spending for partnership projects that propose to better leverage federal dollars.

The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, (D-CA) is proposing a two-year extension of SAFETEA-LU at current fiscal levels, or about $55 billion per year. Boxer’s plan would expand the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) which traditionally leverages federal dollars at a 30 to 1 ratio through an already established loan program.

Funding Challenges

For many years, SAFETEA-LU reauthorization has presented many challenges to lawmakers. Congress has had the unpleasant task of dealing with SAFETEA’s funding level and financing, especially issues attempting to address the fiscal sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), state funding guarantees, and earmarks. Amidst this, lawmakers must wrangle with federalism issues as they are extensively lobbied for increased financial assistance from surface transportation grants and a desire for increased flexibility in the use of those funds from multiple state and local government officials and other leading interest groups.

Putting 78,000 workers back to work

Prior to the August recess congressional leaders agreed to adoption of H.R. 2553, the Airport and Airways Extension Act of 2011, Part IV, that temporarily (until September 17) put 4,000 agency employees and 74,000 private-sector workers back to work after a two-week layoff.

Similarly to SAFETEA-LU, even with a short-term agreement reached, vast differences still remain on a long-term legislative proposal for FAA reauthorization. The House legislation provides four-years of funding, but $2 billion lower than the Senate’s two-year legislation. Other issues remaining include union elections and subsidies to small and rural airports.  This is the 22nd extension adopted for FAA.

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Tim Cansler
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