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.