As House-Senate negotiations on the surface-transportation bill near the end of their third week, the two sides are making progress, but the hardest issues, including how much funding the bill will contain, have yet to be resolved.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who also chairs the joint conference committee working on the bill, told reporters on May 23: "We are making very good progress—I would say great progress—on working through the various outstanding issues."

She added, "I intend to complete the conference report by our deadline" of June 30. That's when the current short-term authorization measure expires.

The conferees are attempting to reconcile the $109-billion, two-year bill that the Senate approved and the House's three-month measure, which also has controversial provisions attached, including language requiring fast approval of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.

In her press briefing, Boxer said that about 80% of the highway-policy-related portions of the bill are "non-controversial"—indicating that they would be part of the final bill.

(Other sections include transit, safety and the critically important revenue title.)

The  highway provisions mutually acceptable to the House and Senate sides include a nearly tenfold funding hike for the Transportation Infrastructure Financing Investment Act program.  TIFIA, established in 1998, provides federal loans and loan guarantees for major highway. transit and other projects.

Based on Boxer's comments, the final transportation bill probably will boost direct federal TIFIA subsidy assistance to $1 billion annually for two years, from $122 million a year now. As most observers see it, TIFIA's beauty is its multiplier effect: each dollar in direct federal subsidies translates into ten dollars in loan value. Thus the envisioned $1 billion would support $10 billion a year in loans.

There's further leverage: the TIFIA loans now can only account for a maximum of one-third of a project's total cost. Project sponsors must use federal, state or local grants or tolls or other resources to provide the other two-thirds. Boxer didn't say what TIFIA's new maximum share would be. 

Also non-controversial, she said, are provisions to reduce sharply the number of federal highway programs and funding categories.

Boxer's report is encouraging and tracks with what observers had expected.
But all the players know that much more difficult issues still remain to be settled. They include whether House conservatives will accept the Senate's provisions to supplement the flagging Highway Trust Fund by tapping the general fund and other resources.

Another thorny topic is the House's Keystone pipeline provision. The Senate bill has no mention of Keystone.

Boxer said she didn't want to get into specific issues, but did say, "I think we have a chance" to have a final bill that goes beyond the Senate version's Sept. 30, 2013, end. That hinges on striking a deal on the money.

She said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) "is working very cooperatively with" House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) on the transportation bill's financing section.

Boxer also noted that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) wants a final bill that goes beyond two years.

But the longer the measure's time period,  the more additional money negotiators will have to unearth.
The Senate-passed version's proposed funding provides resources that could stretch the highway and transit programs a bit beyond September 2013, but not much past that date.

Boxer's positive report is encouraging to construction industry observers, but no one is declaring victory yet. 

There's a saying about House-Senate conference committees: "Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to."
The two sides are still far from that goal.