After nearly 22 months of delays and wrangling on Capitol Hill, a huge, multi-year transportation bill has won approval on Capitol Hill. Final congressional passage came in the evening of July 29, when the Senate cleared the bill on a strong 91-4 vote. Earlier that day, the House passed the measure 412-8. In a statement, President Bush congratulated the lawmakers and said he looked forward to signing the bill.

To keep highway and transit funds flowing, the House and Senate approved, and President Bush signed into law, yet another stopgap measure, which runs through July 30. This extension is the 11th such stopgap since September 2003.

The new bill is titled "SAFETEA-LU," for the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users," which merges the Bush administration and Senate-passed "SAFETEA" and the House-approved "TEA-LU." The "Lu" in the House version also is the name of the wife House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), the bill's main sponsor in that chamber.

SAFETEA-LU's guaranteed funding obligations total $286.45 billion for the six-year period 2004 through 2009, but authorizations, which include non-guaranteed funds, were about $298 billion, says Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the House transportation panel's top Democrat. The additional $11-billion-plus in non-guaranteed authorizations were needed to increase donor states' highway-aid returns on their fuel taxes paid.

The new bill's $286.45 billion in guaranteed funding represents a 38% gain over the $208 billion provided by the previous six-year statute, the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.

On the other hand, the new version is far short of the $375 billion Young initially had sought. Speaking to reporters after the House passed SAFETEA-LU, Young said its funding total "is a good number. It's not good enough, but it's a good number. It's better than what was proposed originally from the White House."

In 2003, the Bush administration proposed a $247-billion measure, then in February 2004 boosted the total to $256 billion and later last year went up to $284 billion. Under the new bill donors will see their assured returns rise from 90.5% now, to 91.5% in 2007 and 92% in 2008 and 2009. Donors had been seeking the 92% level earlier than 2008 but agreed to compromise.

Lawmakers also wanted to protect "donee" states, and the new bill guarantees them at least a 19% increase in highway funding over their TEA-21 levels. To see how much money would flow to each state, click here.

Further complicating the arithmetic, Oberstar said the White House won rescissions of about $12 billion in highway funds authorized in measures enacted in previous years, but adds that the rescission wouldn't take effect until the end of fiscal year 2009.
Although the many short-term extensions have kept highway and transit programs operating and continued to provide funds to states and transit agencies, once the new multi-year measure is enacted, it will increase the shares of the total highway pie for some states and cut back on the shares of others.

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