The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has cleared a six-year highway and transit bill, with estimated total obligations of $275 billion, moving the lengthy Capitol Hill debate one step closer to completion. The bill, the Transportation Equity Act-a Legacy for Users," or "TEA-LU," was approved on March 24 and goes next to the House floor for consideration.
In terms of funding, TEA-LU stands between the $318-billion version that the Senate approved in February and the $256-billion proposal from the Bush administration. TEA-LU's size isn't likely to change substantially when it comes up for a floor vote, because its funding level has the support of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Whatever bill emerges from the eventual House-Senate negotiations, it will be the successor to the $220-billion Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.
Committee staffers say the measure actually authorizes about $280 billion over six years, but its limit funding obligations is $275 billion. Highways' share would be about $225 billion, mass transit would get $51.5 billion, and highway safety programs about $5 billion.
|Young's panel had to scale back original plan substantially. (Photo courtesy of office of Rep. Don Young)|
Transportation committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), other panel members and construction industry officials, were disappointed that TEA-LU's dimensions are much smaller than the $375-billion version Young had been pushing. Young scaled back his plan in the face of a veto threat from the Bush administration.
Peter Ruane, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association's president and CEO, called the trimmed-back TEA-LU "another key step in the legislative process." But he added, "We share the view expressed by the committee leadership and committee members that the $275-billion investment level is inadequate to meet the nation's documented transportation needs. The Senate-passed bill should be considered the six-year investment floor."
To make Young's point that the $375-billion measure is his true desire, the committee first approved that larger version in its voting session, and then also cleared the $275-billion alternative, which will be the vehicle that will go to the floor. Young said he would not give up on his "dream" of the larger bill, but added that "we must meet reality with action."
A hallmark of House highway and transit bills is their long list of special projects inserted at the request of individual lawmakers. TEA-LU follows that tradition: Committee aides said the bill contains some 3,800 projects, with federal funding totaling more than $11 billion. "It was all based on the merits of the projects," a committee staffer maintained. Still, Young said "no" to many projects. Staffers said House members had asked for about 5,300 projects to be included. "They swung for the fence" with the requests, one aide said.
One potentially troublesome point is that the $275-billion TEA-LU doesn't increase the current guarantee that states will get highway aid equal to at least 90.5% of their motorists' fuel-tax payments into the Highway Trust Fund. That won't win votes among "donor" states, which pay more in gas taxes than they get back in road funds. The Senate bill raises that minimum guarantee to 95% in 2009, its final year.
In an unusual twist, TEA-LU has a provision that prevents states from obligating any funds after September 2005 unless Congress adds enough new funding to increase the minimum guarantee. Under this provision to "reopen" the legislation after enactment, if the funds are added, the guarantee would rise to 92% in 2005, then continue to climb in steps to 95% in 2009, aides said.
Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, said, "Chairman Young and the T&I Committee symbolically voted to demonstrate their believe that $375 billion is necessary to meet the nation's growing transportation infrastructure needs. However, due to political and budgetary constraints, the committee was forced to consider a much lower amount than needed. On a positive note, the legislation does contain a provision to reopen the bill."