Now it’s the Senate’s turn to produce its candidate to be the next, big transportation bill. The ball bounced into that chamber on March 10 when the House passed legislation to provide $284 billion for federal road and transit programs through 2009. The House cleared its measure by a resounding 417-9 vote despite a White House veto threat over a provision that seeks, in effect, to reopen the bill in 2006 to add more funds.

Industry groups, which have been pushing for the legislation for more than two years, were pleased at the House action, but know the contest is far from over. "This is a major milestone," says Steve Hall, the American Council of Engineering Companies’ vice president for government affairs. "The quicker we get to conference, the sooner we can get a final bill done the President’s desk."

Things also are moving in the Senate, where the Environment and Public Works Committee was slated to vote on the highway part of its bill on March 16. The banking committee will follow with the mass transit title the next day. Will Hart, an environment panel spokesman, says that "there is agreement among the Big Four" on that committee–Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), James Jeffords (I-Vt.), Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.)–to introduce legislation in line with the House’s overall $284-billion total. In the Senate, three different committees have jurisdiction over highway, transit and safety programs, respectively. Their three separate authorizations will be stitched together for floor action.

Despite the activity, a final resolution is, at best, many weeks away. That’s more delay for state transportation departments and construction firms that have been awaiting a new bill since September 2003, when the previous statute, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, expired. The Capitol Hill stalemate has led to six short-term extensions to keep programs operating. The latest stopgap runs out on May 31.

Observers agree the key arena will be a conference committee, which may not meet until May. In those sessions, House and Senate negotiators will work out differences between their proposals. Those conferees probably will be the ones to hammer out a formula to settle the toughest, and still-unanswered, question: How much money will each state get? Click here to view graph - Summary of Highway Funding

Lawmakers will have to placate two long-feuding camps: donor states, which pay more into the Highway Trust Fund than they get in federal road aid, and donees, who are in the opposite position. The key yardstick is the minimum amount of aid states are guaranteed for each dollar’s worth of fuel taxes paid. TEA-21 set the ratio at 90.5%. Donors hope to do better this time. Donees don’t want to see donors’ gains carved from their budgets.

In its new bill, the House punted, retaining the 90.5% mark. The measure, H.R. 3, does increase the share of its overall funding to which the guarantee applies, adding project allotments, a House Democratic aide says. Thus, the bill provides 90.5% of a larger base.

Some ‘High Priority Projects’ in the Transportation Bill  
State Project
($ mil.)
Alaska Knik Arm Bridge, Anchorage 200
Alaska Ketchikan-Gravina Island bridge 125
Washington, D.C. South Capitol St./Frederick Douglass Bridge 50
West Virginia 4-lane improvements, Route 35, Mason Co. 44.3
New Jersey Garden State Parkway grade separation, Cape May Co. 40
Kentucky Two Ohio River bridges, Louisville-south Indiana 35
Texas Freeway, interchange landscaping, Houston area 35
California Widen State Route 46, San Luis Obispo Co. 33.5
Washington, D.C. 11th St. bridges, rehab, new ramps 32
Louisiana Improve Essen Lane, other Baton Rouge-area roads 30
North Dakota Liberty Memorial Bridge (Missouri River), Bismarck-Mandan 30
Source: H.R.3, ENR  

"If they could have done more on the rate of return, they would have," says David Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association vice president for government relations. The problem was a lack of funds.

There’s consensus that a 95% minimum isn’t possible at $284 billion, unless donees’ funding is slashed, something their congressional allies won’t abide. Even nudging up the ratio a couple of percentage points probably will require more money. Observers expect attempts to add funds in the Senate, which approved a $318-billion measure last year before negotiations with the House broke down.

"Clearly there’s a tremendous amount of sentiment for the 318 in the Senate," says Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff’s senior vice president for government affairs. But it’s unclear how Republicans will respond if the White House takes a hard line on holding down the bill’s size. "The only way this gets resolved is more money in a bill that can get past both chambers," says Bauer.

One possible revenue source, industry officials say, was proposed by the administration in its 2006 budget. Some vehicles owned by states and localities now get refunds on federal fuel taxes from the Highway Trust Fund. Sources say the White House is proposing to pay the refunds out of the general fund. That could add about $1 billion a year to the trust fund, and the transportation bill.

Other H.R. 3 provisions drew fire from the Bush administration, which wants $284 billion to be the ceiling. It zeroed in on a section that would bar states from getting most of their fiscal 2006 road aid until Aug. 1, 2006, unless a new law is enacted to hike overall funding. The Office of Management and Budget says if that provision stays in the bill, the President’s top advisors would recommend a veto.

Potential Highway Funding Winners and Losers 
Biggest % Gains
(H.R.3 vs. TEA-21) 
Alaska 42.9
Minnesota 40.1
Colorado 39.8
Indiana 36.8
Wash., D.C. 34.4
Smallest % Gains 
South Dakota 16.4
Wyoming 17.6
Rhode Island 17.7
Idaho 17.8
Montana 18.1
Delaware 18.1

OMB also objected to what it terms "the proliferation of new categorical programs, set-asides and so-called high-priority projects" in H.R. 3. Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy with the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense, tallies 4,128 "political earmarks" in the bill, and says the legislation "is leading us down the road of fiscal ruin."

All states would get more highway money under H.R. 3 than in TEA-21. Some would do better than others (table). Unsurprisingly, Alaska tops that list. Its House member is Republican Don Young, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which drafted the bill. Right behind is Minnesota, home of Rep. James Oberstar, the top Democrat on Young’s panel.

Those two states surely will fare well in the final legislation, but no state should take the House bill’s tables to the bank. "We still have the Senate to deal with," observes Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors’ highway and transportation division. "Obviously, those charts are going to have to be massaged a couple more times" before things are done.

Industry and state officials were pleased that the House defeated a floor amendment from Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), which they argued would have restricted their ability to use tolls. The House did add a rider from Bill Pascrell, Jr., (D-N.J.) to let states limit campaign contributions from firms that do federally funded state highway work. The Federal Highway Administration has told New Jersey that the state’s "pay-for-play" restrictions don’t comport with federal contracting rules (ENR 2/14 p. 15).