A new transportation bill has advanced a bit more on Capitol Hill, and in an expected direction. Senate committees have approved highway and transit measures within the $284-billion mark that President Bush set and the House adhered to in the bill it passed March 10. But when the panels’ bills come to the floor, perhaps in April, lawmakers and observers foresee a push to add funds. The key question: Will the White House insist on no more money?

A Washington source expects a floor amendment from a Republican to lift guaranteed funding to $301 billion, the sum that chamber approved last year before talks with the House broke down. If the Senate passes such an increase, the source says the White House "will throw an absolutely unmitigated fit." That wouldn’t bode well for finishing a final bill by May 31, when a stopgap funding measure lapses.

Industry then could find itself on a razor’s edge. "We’d like to see as much money as possible in this bill, but we definitely want to see it move forward quickly as well," says American Highway Users Alliance President Gregory Cohen. "It’s pretty critical that we don’t let this bill slip again like last year."

There is Senate sentiment to hike the total. The $190-billion highway bill the Environment and Public Works Committee approved March 16 only guarantees "donor" states a 92% return on fuel taxes, up from 90.5% now. Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) says 92% "is not satisfactory with me. I think it should be enhanced. But the only way to do that is going to be to increase the [funding] number." Inhofe says he would support an amendment to boost funding, "assuming that we can find the money." It will be up to the Finance Committee to locate those sources of added revenue.

On the Banking Committee, which on March 17 cleared $44 billion for transit over five years, Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) says it will take $1.7 billion more to give transit the share it had of 2004’s Senate bill. "I’ll continue to fight for that share as this bill moves through the process," he says. Republicans, including Chairman Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.), also would like to see transit get more.

The American Public Transportation Association backed a figure "more reflective of the split in last year’s Senate bill," says Daniel Duff, vice president for government affairs. "We are now working with our [industry] coalition partners in support of higher funding for both transit and highways when the bill is taken up on the Senate floor."

If the White House digs in against such efforts, the floor could be a battleground. "I think this whole thing will be very rancorous," one source predicts.

Airports: FAA Sees Rise in Airline Passenger Volume

Airline passenger volume will climb again this year and exceed its 2001 level, the Federal Aviation Administration says. In its latest annual forecast, released March 17, FAA predicts U.S. commercial airlines’ 2005 enplanements will total 717.5 million, up 4.2% from last year. That would be the highest mark since 2000’s 697.6 million. Through 2016, volume will rise an average of 3.4% a year, surpassing 1 billion in 2015, FAA says.

For airport infrastructure planners, passenger volume is a key indicator of the need to expand terminals. But aircraft operations–takeoffs and landings–are a better yardstick of runway capacity stress. FAA sees operations rising, but more slowly than passenger traffic. It says operations will go up 2.3% in 2005, to 64.5 million. Operations increased 0.8% in 2004, their first gain since 2000.

Energy: Senate Vote Favors Oil Drilling in Alaska Refuge

President Bush and other backers of oil drilling in a federal wildlife refuge in Alaska have won a key Senate victory that moves their plan closer to reality. By a slim 51-49 vote, the Senate on March 16 rejected a proposal to delete a budget resolution provision that assumed $2.5 billion in receipts over five years from drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

In 2003, the Senate blocked an energy bill proposal that would have allowed drilling in ANWR. In that case, drilling advocates didn’t get the 60 votes Senate rules generally require to end a filibuster. But the budget measure is an exception: 51 votes ensure passage.

Still ahead: a Senate vote on the full budget blueprint and reconciling it with the House version, which doesn’t have the ANWR language.

Health Care: Panel Clears Association Health Plan Bill

The House Education and the Workforce Committee has approved a bill that would let companies that belong to associations buy health insurance jointly. The House passed a similar measure in 2004 but the Senate didn’t act. Supporters, including Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Association of Home Builders, say the bill the panel cleared March 16 lets small firms get better insurance rates by using federally certified health plans.

Compiled by Tom Ichniowski