With Senate passage of a $318-billion transportation bill, the focus shifts to the House, where the size of its version is one big question mark. Observers hope Congress will take some action by Feb. 29, when highway and transit funding authority will run out. The bill, which would replace the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, is by far the top legislative priority for the construction industry.
STATES THAT FARE IN SENATE'S SAFETEA:
(Ranked by percent increaseformula highway
|DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA||651||984||51.19|
|...and those that fare worst:|
|NEW HAMPSHIRE|| |
|TOTAL 50 STATES AND D.C.||167,439||227,034||35.59|
*Funding totals rounded, percent increases based on non-rounded dollars
In the House, there are at least three alternatives. The firmest is a four-month TEA-21 extension that the House passed Feb. 11. It would avert the Feb. 29 deadline if the Senate agrees. The second option is Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Youngs (R-Alaska) $375-billion "TEA-LU" bill. He plans to have his panel vote on it Feb. 25. But other GOP leaders are working on a third optiona bill smaller than TEA-LU but maybe larger than the Senates.
The Senate made significant progress on Feb. 12 when it approved its $318-billion measure by a comfortable 76-21 margin. That bill represents an increase of about 41% over TEA-21s estimated $226 billion total. The Senate-passed bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA), authorizes $255 billion for highways, $56.5 billion for mass transit and $6 billion for highway safety.
To help "donor" states, the bill ensures all states will get at least 95 in federal highway aid for each dollar in fuel taxes their motorists pay into the Highway Trust Fund. But it does not completely make good on that guarantee until 2009, the bills final year. Some states gain more than a 40% hike over their TEA-21 allotments (see table above). No state gets less than a 10% boost, though some with relatively small gains are no doubt unhappy.
Senate advocates and their construction industry supporters cheered the bills passage. And Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), SAFETEAs floor manager, says it has "crucial funding to improve our nations transportation infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner...." But the White House says the bills price tag is too high and that administration officials would recommend a presidential veto if the cost is not cut.
The administration has a $256-billion proposal, also called SAFETEA. President Bush has not said publicly whether he would accept something higher than that. He did make clear a bill totaling $290 billion is too high, says Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
The Senates vote to pass the bill is well above the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. But if Bush starts to twist arms, he might well be able to peel off enough Republican votes to sustain a veto, observers say. One Washington source does not believe a Republican Congress would put a GOP President running for re-election on the spot by prompting him to veto a popular bill and then overriding him. In political terms, "Thats kind of like the clear definition of insanity," the source says.
"I think the really big vote in the Senate is an important sign that members really want this bill," says Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoffs senior vice president of government affairs. "But you cant call it...veto-proof."
How the House will vote is the other unknown overhanging the legislation, which even at the administrations $256 billion would be the largest public works bill in U.S. history. Transportation Committee spokesman Steve Hansen says the panel has not done a formal count to see whether TEA-LU would pass, "but the committee is unified behind the [TEA-LU] bill."
"I would not be surprised if that Feb. 25 date gets pushed back a little," says one industry source. "Its a very fluid situation." There are rumors a two-year bill may be considered in the House.
Hansen says another set of negotiations is going on in which Young, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and other GOP leaders are discussing how to finance the transportation bill. If they side with Bush and reject a gas-tax increase, that would cut the bills size well below $375 billion. One source has heard the House might go for a package totaling $330 billion. Says American Road & Transportation Builders Association spokesman Matthew Jeanneret: "There are many more innings still to be played in this game."