The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users became law this summer, authorizing a guaranteed $244 billion over five years and steering $23 billion to some 5,000 projects, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Bill Has Record Funding for Highways, Transit   
Program 2005 2006 % change
Federal-aid highway obligation ceiling *34,422 36,032 +5
Federal Transit Administration 7,646 8,590 +12
FAA airport grants (obligation ceiling) 3,472 3,550 +2
GSA construction, acquisition 709 792 +12
GSA repairs, alterations 980 861 -12

*Excludes $1.2 billion in 2005 emergency appropriations
Source: Senate-House conference agreement on H.R. 3058, Fiscal 2006 Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill.

In its totals for major DOT accounts, the 2006 spending bill follows SAFETEA-LU’s blueprint (table). But appropriators did make changes down in the details, a reminder that they, too, can direct funds to projects. They also erased high-profile SAFETEA-LU’s earmarks for two controversial Alaska bridges.

"There’s really no surprises in the bill," says Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association vice president for government affairs. "In general, it just sticks with SAFETEA-LU. The good news is it’s finished."

David Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for government relation, says, "I think the macro funding levels have been strictly adhered to for ’06." That includes a record $36-billion federal-aid highway obligation limit and an all-time-high $8.5 billion for the Federal Transit Administration.

Appropriators’ biggest departure from SAFETEA-LU was carving out a "takedown" of up to 2.75% of the bill’s total highway contract authority, or $625 million. That will go for about 520 different surface transportation projects. The largest allocations are $10 million each for the Coalfields Expressway in West Virginia and the University of South Alabama Transportation Technology Center. "They created a pot of money that they could have some discretion over because there wasn’t any left under the [SAFETEA-LU] authorization bill," Bauer observes.

Appropriators also bowed to negative publicity about the two Alaska bridge projects. They deleted the authorizing statute’s language that had directed a combined $454 million to a proposed Knik Arm Bridge to link Anchorage and Port MacKenzie and an envisioned crossing from Ketchikan to Gravina Island.

Critics lambasted the Gravina project as the "bridge to nowhere," saying the island has only 50 inhabitants. The project recently was depicted on the cover of a prominent Sunday newspaper magazine supplement. Says NAPA’s Hansen: "Once that hit Parade magazine, that was it."

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a senior appropriator and defender of the bridge projects, says, "I’m disappointed that the issue was raised in the first place." But the removal of the earmark was "frankly more optics than anything else," says another Washington source. The appropriators didn’t delete the $454 million; they directed that it still go to Alaska, but as part of the state’s general federal high-way funding allotment. Stevens says that under the new provision, "It’s up to Alaska to decide how to use that money."

Stevens was incensed by an earlier proposal from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to remove $75 million from the Alaska bridges and shift it to Louisiana to help cover costs of repairing the Lake Pontchartrain twin spans damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Coburn’s plan was "very obnoxious and disturbing," says Stevens. It was defeated by an 82-15 vote. The final appropriations language was less painful.

"We’re supportive of the bridge projects," says John Manly, spokesman for the Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities, Anchorage. He says both projects are in the state’s transportation plan. "We’re still going to get the money. There’ll be more competition for how the money is actually going to be used," Manly says.

The Gravina project is estimated to cost $315 million to $320 million, he says. So far Alaska has spent $11.5 million, mostly for National Environmental Policy Act activities. Manly says the state wants to use a design-build procurement for the Gravina crossing and is "within a few weeks of issuing a request for qualifications."

The Knik Arm project would be even larger, at an estimated $400 million to $600 million, says Manly. That project is being managed by an independent authority that the state legislature created. The authority has the ability to issue revenue bonds, backed by future tolls, which are being eyed as one possible funding source.

To Nowhere. Gravina bridge project has been lambasted as an example of pork. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities)

Construction industry officials are relieved that the appropriations measure is headed for enactment. But nothing is for certain, yet. They are staying alert to threats of further changes in transportation funding when legislators return in December from their Thanksgiving recess.

There have been rumblings about cutting domestic discretionary accounts by a modest percentage at the end of the 2006 appropriations round. "It’s something that’s being talked about on the House side. I’ve seen very little receptivity on the Senate side for that," ARTBA’s Bauer says.

NAPA’s Hansen also says his organization will be watching. "They could come in through another bill, like Defense appropriations, and do an across-the-board cut that would include the highway programs," he says. Veteran observers of the appropriator-authorizer tussle know that not all the words in SAFETEA-LU are written in permanent ink.

awmakers on congressional appropriations committees have sparred for years with colleagues on the transportation authorizing panels over who really controls the billions of federal dollars for highways, transit, aviation and railroads. This year, authorizers grabbed the early spotlight as the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Environment and Public Works Committees finally moved the first multi-year transportation measure since 1998. Now, it’s the appropriators’ turn. Before recessing on Nov. 18 for Thanksgiving, the House and Senate gave final approval to a fiscal year 2006 appropriations measure that covers the Dept. of Transportation and the General Services Administration.