The House of Representatives voted 421-4 this afternoon to extend until Sept. 30 federal highway and transit programs that are slated to expire Friday. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Today's vote came one day after the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials sent a letter to all members of Congress urging swift adoption of the measure.
"While AASHTO continues to support congressional efforts to enact a well-funded, long-term surface transportation bill, the absence of such a bill makes this extension essential to creating and sustaining jobs and maintaining America's transportation infrastructure," wrote AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley. "Furthermore, this extension provides much needed certainty for the construction industry, states, and localities as they begin the 2011 construction season."
The bill passed by the House, HR 662, would extend until the end of this federal fiscal year the 2005 highway and transit authorization law -- the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, commonly known as "SAFETEA-LU." Expenditure authority for the Highway Trust Fund would also continue through Sept. 30. This would be the seventh short-term extension of SAFETEA-LU, the latest of which expires in two days. SAFETEA-LU was originally scheduled to expire Sept. 30, 2009, but has not been replaced by another long-term measure.
In Tuesday's letter, Horsley stressed the need for Congress to enact a multiyear surface transportation reauthorization bill during the next seven months so no more short-term extensions of SAFETEA-LU are needed.
"The uncertainty created by the lack of a multiyear federal commitment to improving America's highway and public transportation facilities will contribute to a slowdown in transportation development activity in many states," Horsley wrote. "The jobs impact of this situation has rippled throughout the economy. Workers at design and engineering firms, construction companies, equipment manufacturers, and materials providers have lost their jobs and even more positions are on the line due to uncertainty in federal funding, at a time in which the U.S. unemployment rate remains at record highs."
The full text of Horsley's letter is available at bit.ly/Horsley030111.
Support for Extension Nearly Unanimous
During less than an hour of debate this afternoon on the House floor, no representatives spoke against the extension. Several members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee urged action on moving forward a long-term reauthorization.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon and ranking minority member of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said the United States is falling behind many other nations when it comes to investing in transportation infrastructure.
"We have the worst infrastructure of any modern nation on Earth," DeFazio said. "It's not right. It doesn't serve our businesses or communities well."
DeFazio noted the Senate this morning passed and sent to the president a two-week continuing resolution (House Joint Resolution 44) extending government funding from Friday to March 18, a measure that includes nearly $1 billion in cuts to transportation programs including a $650 million reduction in highway spending for this fiscal year compared to Fiscal Year 2010, rescission of $293 million in unspent transportation earmarks from previous years, and a $25 million reduction in the Rail Line Relocation and Improvement program.
"Rebuilding our infrastructure -- this is the last place we should cut," he said. "Unfortunately, some cuts have already been proposed and made in transportation. That's not where we should be cutting. Those who would advocate further cuts are wrong."
President Barack Obama last month proposed a $556 billion six-year surface transportation reauthorization as part of his FY 2012 budget request. (see Feb. 18 AASHTO Journal story) The administration did not issue recommendations on how to pay for the bill, however.
LaHood, Mica Address Reauthorization Goals at AASHTO Legislative Conference
State transportation department leaders, gathered in Washington for AASHTO's Washington Briefing, spread out across Capitol Hill this afternoon to meet with representatives and senators to urge their support for extending federal highway and transit programs immediately, and completing work on a multiyear surface transportation reauthorization bill in the next few months.
This morning, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told AASHTO's Washington Briefing that the administration is still working on specific legislative language for the reauthorization bill. LaHood said he hopes Congress and the White House can finish such a bill by this summer, or he fears action will be delayed indefinitely as the 2012 presidential campaign season begins to heat up this fall. A video of LaHood's remarks is available at bit.ly/LaHoodAASHTO0302. LaHood also posted a blog entry today on his appearance at the Washington Briefing.
Mica told the Washington Briefing this morning that his first priority for a long-term reauthorization bill is to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund to avoid any more transfers of general government revenue, as have occurred in each of the past three fiscal years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the fund's Highway Account could run dry in Fiscal Year 2012. (see Jan. 28 AASHTO Journal story)
"The second thing is we need to look at every dollar that's sitting anywhere, that hasn't been expended, that has been authorized but not used. Any program that doesn't work -- we need to get that money elsewhere in the system," Mica said. "The third part of the plan, of course, is you have to do some creative financing and leveraging. Look at every program we have that works well, and make it better."
A video of Mica's speech is available at bit.ly/MicaAASHTO0302.
One Minor Amendment Adopted, Effort to Strike Alaska Bridge Earmarks Defeated
Only one floor amendment was made in order by the House Rules Committee. Offered by Mica, it corrected three proofreading mistakes in the bill. That amendment was adopted by a vote of422-0.
The minority was allowed to offer one motion to send the bill back to committee for modification. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, moved to return the bill to the House T&I Committee with instructions to add language rescinding $183 million in unspent earmarks for the state of Alaska to construct a bridge connecting Ketchikan with Gravina Island plus another bridge across Knik Arm linking Anchorage with mostly undeveloped land across the water. Polis said the state has not moved ahead with these two projects, and he argued in favor of canceling the earmarks so the funds can be officially wiped off the government's books.
Mica spoke briefly against the motion, calling it nothing but "smoke and mirrors." The motion failed by a vote of246-181.