As top officials from state transportation agencies gathered in Washington, D.C., for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ annual winter legislative meeting, the major topic of discussion was the continued delay and cloudy outlook for a new federal highway-transit bill.
Differing bills are stalled on the Senate and House floors, and party leaders are working on ways to get them moving. The Senate is debating a bipartisan $109-billion, two-year measure, and the House is taking up a GOP-drafted $260-billion, five-year bill.
But the Senate bill has been delayed by lawmakers who want to attach non-transportation amendments. House leaders are deciding how to revise their bill, which faces fire from fiscal hawks who want to see the overall price tag cut, and from urban-area lawmakers who oppose a provision to cut transit’s 30-year-long tie to Highway Trust Fund aid.
U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, addressing the AASHTO meeting on Feb. 27, criticized the House bill, contending that it "emasculated transit." LaHood said, "We like the Senate bill," but made a pitch for the Obama administration's $476-billion, six-year surface-transportation proposal. That plan has yet to be embraced on Capitol Hill.
The last multiyear transportation authorization expired on Sept. 30, 2009, and since then, a series of extensions has kept programs operating. The next deadline is on March 31, when the latest stopgap runs out.
LaHood said he didn’t think long-term bills would clear the House and Senate by March 31. “I’m going to use past as prologue here, OK?” LaHood told reporters after his speech. “I served in Congress 14 years. I don’t see Congress passing a bill before this … extension runs out.”
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), who addressed the AASHTO audience on Feb. 28, fired back at LaHood, hammering the administration’s plan to help fund its transportation program with a "peace dividend" as a "smoke-and-mirrors, cockamamie proposal."
Mica noted that state DOT officials had provided input that helped committee staffers draft the House’s $260-billion proposal—the bill that LaHood criticized.
Mica blasted transit advocates for opposing the House bill, which, along with the trust-fund cutoff, would provide a onetime $40 billion for transit and other "alternative" transportation projects, such as bikeways. "I think that transit has shafted themselves," Mica declared.
Mica also said that, on Feb. 27, he had discussed next steps for the House transportation bill with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) but declined to say much more. After delivering his remarks at the AASHTO session, Mica told reporters, "We do not have a plan. We have five [or] six options that we are considering." The transit funding issue can be resolved, he added. "The goal is 218 votes," Mica noted.