The 18-month Surface Transportation Extension Debate

There has been controversy over the proposed 18-month extension of the current federal transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, as recommended by the Obama administration and supported by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works (EPW).  While the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure opposes the extension, many environmental groups in DC are optimistic that this will allow for extra time to work with the Senate EPW to develop stronger language to allocate more funding to local and regional planning needs (e.g. data/modeling needs, plan development, etc).  There is a strong desire by many groups to strengthen and expand the transportation provisions of climate legislation for smart planning tools and funding for clean transportation planning and infrastructure.  Current implications of bill language vs future potential of bill language is what best characterizes this debate.

More details of the extension can be found here: Principles for 18-month surface transportation extension

LATEST NEWS (Josh Voorhees, E&E reporter) — July 22, 2009:

The Senate Banking Committee tomorrow is scheduled to mark up a temporary extension of the public transit programs in the current surface transportation spending law, the penultimate step before the Senate can approve an 18-month extension of the authorization.

The two other Senate panels with jurisdiction over transportation legislation — the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee — have already passed extensions of their portions of the highway and transit bill in an effort to postpone a full reauthorization until 2011.

Assuming the Banking panel follows suit, the three bills will then be merged with a Finance Committee provision that would provide the cash needed to keep the trust fund from running aground.

The extension has the blessing of the White House, which has urged lawmakers to postpone efforts to pass a full bill before the current authorization expires at the end of September.

The White House and EPW Committee leadership have asked Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to find $20 billion to keep the trust fund solvent through the end of the 18-month extension.

On Monday, Baucus floated a proposal to inject roughly $27 billion into the trust fund. Roughly $20 billion would come from interest that the account has earned, but not retained, since 1998, when lawmakers traded the rights to those revenues in exchange for a “firewall” around transportation spending. Baucus’ bill would also return $7 billion to the trust fund that had been removed to pay for natural disasters and other emergency work.

While the Senate is making headway toward plugging the funding hole in the Highway Trust Fund and approving an extension before the August recess, House lawmakers have refused to sign onto the plan.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) have vowed to pass a full, six-year authorization before the current law expires, but that effort now seems unlikely. In addition to opposition from the White House and Senate, the T&I panel must wait for the House Ways and Means Committee to write the financing portions of their spending bill.