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 tollind 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.