After more than two years of twists and turns, false starts and a near-stop, House and Senate lawmakers are getting ready to begin negotiations on a new surface-transportation authorization bill.
The House opened the door to a joint conference committee with the Senate on April 18, when it approved a three-month highway-transit bill. House negotiators will bring that measure to the table; Senate negotiators will bring the two-year, $109-billion bill that it passed in March.
Senate leaders named their 14 conferees on April 24. They include eight Democrats and six Republicans. The House was expected to release its list soon. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will chair the joint House-Senate conference, a congressional source says.
Some construction industry officials had hoped for a reauthorization extending as long as five years. But now, the Senate proposal, which would extend programs through September 2013, appears to be the outer time limit for the bill expected to emerge from the House-Senate talks. Sept. 30 marks the end of the federal fiscal year.
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, says, "I think the trick is to get to [Sept. 30] 2013 in the final conference report. To go beyond that, it seems a huge uphill climb."
Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association senior vice president for government and regulatory affairs, says, "We’d like to see [the final bill be] as long as possible, because our members are looking for certainty. But if 'as long as possible' is until the end of fiscal year 2013, then we’ll take that."
Jack Basso, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials director of program management and finance, says, "Right now, the most critical thing … we think, is to get a bill that's stable and predictable, certainly through the remainder of this fiscal year—which it should be—and then through the next fiscal year. Then we can do some [projects] that are a little bit more long-term than we might be able to do otherwise."
Achieving a bill that stretches beyond September 2013 would require unearthing sources of billions of dollars in new revenue to finance it.
The two bills on the table fall far short of that goal. The House's three-month measure lacks any additional revenue-raisers; the Senate’s has only enough to carry through the next 18 months or so. Thus, Hansen says, "It would be extraordinary [for conferees] to go beyond 2013, in my opinion."
Back in February, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee cleared a five-year, $260-billion highway-transit authorization, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was unable to pull together enough votes among his GOP colleagues to get that bill through. Then, in early March, Boehner said he planned to bring up the Senate's two-year bill or something similar on the House floor. But that didn't happen. In the end, he turned to the three-month legislation, which did pass.
Now, construction officials want to see conferees wrap up negotiations and have a final bill enacted by about June 30, when a stopgap authorization is slated to expire. That measure is the ninth in a series of temporary extensions of varying lengths that state transportation departments and construction companies have endured since Sept. 30, 2009, when the last multiyear surface-transportation authorization expired.