Photo Courtesy of Utah Transit Authority
House Ways and Means approves severing mass transit from the Highway Trust Fund, which has financed rail and bus projects for 30 years.

As action picks up in the House and Senate on differing versions of a multiyear surface transportation bill, House Republicans have sparked a major fight by proposing to cut mass transit's 30-year-long link to Highway Trust Fund financing.

After months of false starts, delays and small advances, congressional committees have stepped up the pace on the highway-transit bill. With more than $50 billion a year in construction aid at stake, the bill is the industry's top legislative priority.

The emerging House and Senate bills have key differences. House Republicans, with little or no Democratic backing, are assembling a five-year bill, which sponsors say authorizes $260 billion. The Senate is working on a bipartisan two-year bill, estimated at $109 billion.

But revenue for the trust fund, highways' main federal revenue source for 56 years, is projected at only $37.4 billion a year through 2016, causing lawmakers to scramble to find more money from elsewhere to hit their bills' stated levels.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced an 847-page bill on Jan. 31 and added amendments in a marathon session that stretched from Feb. 2 to early the next day. The bill's prime architect, Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), said it funds roads and transit at current levels, merges or drops about 70 programs, speeds up project reviews, and repeals the set-aside for bike paths and other "transportation enhancements." It also boosts direct federal aid to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program for major projects to $1 billion a year, from $122 million.

GOP leaders will join Mica's bill with measures the Natural Resources Committee approved on Feb. 1 to expand oil and gas drilling. Republicans plan to use some of the expected energy royalties for transportation but haven't said how much.

When the Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 3 passed a revenue title for the envisioned House package, it dropped a bombshell, moving to sever transit from the trust fund, which has provided billions in rail and bus aid for more than 30 years. Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said transit's estimated $25-billion trust-fund loss would be more than offset by a provision to add $40 billion from general revenue. He didn't specify the source. The trust-fund cutoff triggered an outcry from groups including the American Public Transportation Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In the Senate, the banking committee approved on Feb. 2 a $10.5-billion transit title that will be merged with an $85-billion highway title the Environment and Public Works Committee cleared in November. That highway title combines programs, expedites project reviews—but not as broadly as Mica's bill does—and sharply hikes TIFIA. It keeps the enhancements set-aside but gives states more flexibility than they have now. To add to trust-fund revenue, the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 7 took up a $10.5-billion infusion from import tariffs and other sources. Finance didn't cut transit's trust-fund tie.

Brian Pallasch, ASCE managing director for government relations, says, "We certainly don't agree with everything in both [House and Senate] bills." But, he says, "I think that, ultimately, a lot of the differences can and should be worked out in conference" between the chambers.

Stephen Sandherr, Associated General Contractors CEO, says if a joint conference finds credible funding sources to cover a long-term bill, it may be better than a two-year bill followed by possible deep spending cuts after it lapses. He says, "If you can get a long-term solution, it will give the industry some certainty and the ability to plan for the future."