Before Congress left last month for a two-week recess, it made progress on a multi-year transportation bill. But as legislators returned, prospects were dimming that a new measure would be wrapped up by May 31, when the latest highway and transit extension expires. Also simmering on Capitol Hill are Corps of Engineers authorization, fiscal 2006 appropriations and a bill to let association member firms buy health insurance jointly.

The long-delayed transportation bill remains construction’s top item. "It’s our big focus right now," says Jeffrey D. Shoaf, Associated General Contractors’ senior executive director for government and public affairs. After House passage and Senate committee approval in March, the next stop is the Senate floor. "We’re still trying to work to get floor time," says Will Hart, an Environment and Public Works Committee spokesman. But possible partisan battles in the Senate over confirming judges "could really slow things down the rest of the year," Shoaf says. That could make a final transport bill impossible by May 31. If the Senate doesn’t act soon, "A short extension is becoming increasingly likely," says Laurence D. Bory, a vice president with HDR.

Delayed even longer is a bill authorizing new Corps projects. The last Water Resources Development Act was signed in December 2000. In the last Congress, the House passed a successor bill but the Senate did not. A House panel has begun hearings on a new WRDA. In the Senate, "We’re hoping that we’re able to get to the WRDA bill this month," Hart says.

Construction spending faces a pinch in 2006. With the federal deficit looming over appropriators, "They’ve got their work cut out for them," says Casey Dinges, American Society of Civil Engineers’ vice president for external affairs. "This is...probably the single biggest challenge facing our industry in Congress this year," adds Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies’ vice president for government affairs. The spending picture "doesn’t look promising," says HDR’s Bory. "But...I think there’s a lot of interest by members of Congress in making sure they’ve got a good track record" for 2006’s elections.

In other areas, an association health bill has cleared a House committee but the Senate hasn’t moved. An energy bill is stirring: The House Energy and Commerce Committee is drafting a package.

On the Agenda for Congress
Bill Status
Transportation House, Senate panels approve bills, but little time left before stopgap lapses
FY 2006 Appropriationsededff House, Senate hearings started, construction spending under pressure
Water Resources No bills yet in House or Senate
Association health plans House committee approval, no Senate movement yet
House committee approval, no Senate movement yet
Energy House committee crafting bill
SOURCE: House, senate committees, ENR

Mercury: States� Lawsuit Seeks To Halt EPA Rule
Nine state attorneys general have filed the first of two lawsuits to block Environmental Protection Agency regulations that, for the first time, regulate mercury emissions. The AGs believe that the rules aren�t stringent enough. The March 29 suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, challenges a rule removing powerplants from a list of mercury pollution sources. A second suit, aimed at EPA�s planned cap-and-trade system, will be filed when the rule appears in the Federal Register. Plaintiffs are: New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York and Vermont. Senate environment committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) criticized the AGs� action as a political statement.

Groundwater: EPA Withdraws Rule
The long-stalled groundwater rule proposed in 2002 by the Environmental Protection Agency has been delayed again. On March 24, EPA withdrew the regulation from administration review, according to the Office of Management and Budget. The American Water Works Association says that EPA needed more time to fully address issues concerning the underlying regulatory analysis. The groundwater rule, initially expected to be made final in mid-2003, would, among other things, specify the appropriate use of disinfection in public groundwater systems that have at least 15 service connections or regularly serve at least 25 individuals daily. It would apply to approximately 147,000 systems serving 114 million people. EPA expects to continue work and have a final rule by December.

EPA: New Standards Cut Emissions From Coke Ovens The Environmental
Protection Agency on March 31 issued the first in a series of "residual risk standards" that require further cuts in toxic air emissions from coke ovens. The ovens convert coal to coke, a higher-content fuel, which is burned to produce iron at steel mills and foundries. Under the rule, allowable emissions will be cut from 11.3 tons to 9.8 tons per year. EPA says its action strengthens 1993 rules, reflecting new emission control technology.

Compiled by Sherie Winston