House and Senate committees plan to get started early in 2005 on reviving the becalmed multi-year transportation bill, a key lawmaker and congressional staffers say. Soon after the 109th Congress convenes in January, legislators want to introduce bills that are similar to the versions that passed the House and Senate this year, committee aides told an American Road and Transportation Builders Association conference on Dec.9.
House and Senate negotiations on a successor to the expired Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century broke down several months ago when lawmakers couldn't agree on the new bill's price tag. Instead, Congress passed an eight-month extension to keep federal highway and transit programs operating through May 2005. That's the sixth extension since TEA-21 lapsed Sept. 30, 2003.
Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says that when the new Congress opens, the $284-billion bill that cleared the House in April will be reintroduced with a "few little adaptations," with the hope of getting the measure to the House floor in February. When House-Senate talks on a compromise long-term bill were going on in August, a House proposal for $299 billion was floated. Oberstar says he's advocating boosting the offer by $6 billion.
On the Senate side, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) wants to reintroduce the $318-billion measure that the Senate approved in February, or something "close to it," says J.C. Sandberg, an aide to committee Democrats. He says the plan is to have the committee approve it early in February.
Graham Hill, a staffer on the House highways, transit and pipelines subcommittee, says that as they work on the bill to be introduced, aides are looking at the Highway Trust Fund's revenue capacity.
The trust fund will benefit from provisions in the tax-cut bill enacted in October. Changes in the tax treatment of ethanol fuel and other provisions in that legislation will add about $24 billion to the trust fund over five years, says Sherry Kuntz, an aide to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley. But transportation-bill drafters also will have to take note of the Treasury Dept.'s July estimate that shows a $3.3-billion decline in 2004-2009 Highway Trust Fund receipts, compared with Treasury's January estimate.