A bipartisan group of four key senators has reached agreement on the outline of a six-year, $339.2-billion surface transportation measure.
The deal was announced on May 25 by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), along with the committee's ranking Republican, James Inhofe (Okla.), transportation and infrastructure subcommittee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the subcommittee's ranking Republican, David Vitter (D-La.).
The accord signifies progress on legislation long-awaited by the construction industry. But there is still a long way to go.
And a critical element is missing: Funding a bill at the $339-billion level would require an infusion of more than $40 billion for the struggling Highway Trust Fund.
The four senators did not say where the additional money for the trust fund would come from. Boxer said that it would be up to the Finance Committee in the Senate to determine the funding sources. Baucus chairs that committee.
In the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) has been working on a multi-year measure, but he hasn't introduced a bill yet.
Congress faces a deadline. Federal highway and transit programs have been operating for nearly 20
months under a series of short-term extensions. The latest extension lapses on Sept. 30.
Boxer told reporters on May 25 that she plans to have a detailed legislative text ready soon. Hearings are possible sometime in June. Boxer says she is aiming to have her committee vote on the bill before the July 4 congressional recess.
She says that the framework's $339.2-billion total over six years includes authorizations for federal highway, transit and highway safety programs, but not high-speed passenger rail. She also notes that the envisioned total authorization represents an extension of current funding levels plus increases to cover projected inflation.
Jeff Shoaf, the Associated General Contractors of America's senior executive director for government affairs, says that with the senators' announcement, industry now knows "this is the direction they're heading in and they're looking at funding at current levels--which I think is a big step, and a big change."
Beyond the money, the outline includes several changes in transportation policies, most of which have broad legialtive and industry support.