A surface-transportation authorization is construction's No. 1 legislative priority this year and tops the agenda for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW). Inhofe is seeking "a fiscally responsible, long-term transportation bill that builds upon reforms in MAP-21, better coordinates funding needs with private and state partners, and eliminates wasteful spending," according to a document provided for a media briefing in early January.

Inhofe, who chaired EPW in 2003-2006, must act quickly: A stopgap authorization lapses on May 31. "He intends on moving forward on a bill right away," says Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America's highway and transportation division.

The EPW panel's jurisdiction, and thus its bill, is limited to highways. Other committees will produce titles covering transit, safety and the critically important revenue to fund the measure. They will be merged in a package for a floor vote. Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president, says, "I think there's no question [Inhofe] very much wants a long-term, robust highway title, but ... everyone's hands are tied with not having the funding. And how long it's going to take us to come to a deal on funding is really unclear."

Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, expects Inhofe to pursue reducing federal mandates and "giving the state and local governments more flexibility in spending their dollars." He thinks Inhofe will aim to focus the bill's funding on highways and bridges. That may mean changes in a current program that sets aside some highway funds for bicycle and pedestrian paths and other "transportation alternatives."

MAP-21, or the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, included provisions aimed at speeding projects' environmental reviews. Deery says that, in the 2015 bill, "I think [Inhofe] would like to do some more tinkering with the environmental requirements."

But Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), EPW's top Democrat, isn't likely to go along with radical changes in environmental reviews and transportation alternatives. Corralling 60 Senate votes to pass the bill will require some Democrats' support. "So, he'll need Boxer," Connor says. Connor is optimistic, saying the two senators "have a history of working together and working through some of those differences." MAP-21 itself is a good case in point.

Scott Slesinger, Natural Resources Defense Council legislative director, says, "On a whole bunch of issues [such as climate policies and revised Clean Water Act regulation], Senator Inhofe and the environmental community are at complete loggerheads." He adds, "I think one of the exceptions, however, is the transportation bill."

Slesinger says compromises on environmental reviews and balancing rural and urban regions' priorities can build bipartisan backing to pass a new highway-transit measure. He says, "There's a sweet spot that can get tremendous support across the ideological and political [hurdles] that hold up a lot of other bills."

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has priorities similar to Inhofe's. Shuster told a Jan. 23 U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting that he wants a "fiscally responsible" five- or six-year bill that, among other things, would "get Washington out of the way" and let states and localities accelerate projects.