Giving a boost to prospects for a new surface transportation bill, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a $283.9-billion measure that would fund highway, transit and safety programs through fiscal 2009. As expected, the funding total in the committee's bill, approved March 2 on a unanimous vote, is the same amount that President Bush recommended for the legislation last month.

Young's panel approved bill with $225.5 billion for highways, $52 billion for transit

Transportation committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) hopes to bring the measure to the House floor as March 9 or 10, says Graham Hill, the panel's staff director. In the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is aiming to have his panel vote on the highway portion of a $284-billion bill before the Easter recess, and will be looking for floor time in early April, says Ruth Van Mark, that committee's deputy staff director.

Young said, "The American people deserve solutions to the problems of congestion, crumbling roads and delayed shipments of freight."

The previous surface transportation statute, the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century--TEA-21--lapsed on Sept. 30, 2003. Since then, federal highway and transit programs have been operating under a series of short-term extensions. The most recent such stopgap measure, the sixth in that series, expires May 31. Bush administration officials have been pushing for the $283.9 billion figure, arguing that a new bill is necessary to avoid losing a construction season.

Of the $283.9 billion, $225.5 billion would be authorized for the Federal Highway Administration, $52.3 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, $3.2 billion for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and $2.9 billion for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The $283.9-billion figure is somewhat deceptive, because it refers to funding over fiscal year 2004 through 2009, and fiscal 2004 and five months of fiscal 2005, of course, have elapsed. As House staffer Hill says, "It is a six-year bill, five years in length."

The full House is expected generally to follow the version Young's committee approved, but there may be efforts on the Senate floor to increase funding above $284 billion. Last year, the Senate approved a $318-billion measure, but no final agreement could be reached with the House on a transportation bill before the 108th Congress ended.

That meant lawmakers in the new Congress had to start again, introducing bills and moving them through committees and floor votes.

(Photo above courtesy of the office of Rep. Don Young)