Washington debates 3 competing transportation bills

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Three competing federal transportation reauthorization proposals have been put forth by the House, the Senate, and the president. The final legislation will influence the rate at which major infrastructure projects, including those in cities and towns, can proceed over the next several years.

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2013 federal budget bill, issued on Feb. 13, proposes significant investments in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. It would allocate $74 billion to the U.S. Department of Transportation, an increase of 2 percent over the current fiscal year.

The bill details a six-year, $476 billion surface transportation reauthorization proposal that would increase funding for highway and bridge improvements; provide $3.4 billion for competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants for projects that have significant local, regional, or national impacts; and allocate $47 billion for the development of high-speed and intercity rail.

The president’s budget bill includes $500 million in funding for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

The proposal also calls for an immediate infusion of $50 billion in stimulus spending during the current fiscal year to support improvements to roads, bridges, transit systems, border crossings, railways, and airport runways.

The transportation funding outlined in the president’s budget would be financed largely through projected savings generated by the end of the war in Iraq and the scaling back of the war in Afghanistan; the administration has committed to using half of these savings to fund domestic infrastructure projects.

As the president released his vision for a six-year transportation reauthorization plan, House Speaker John Boehner indicated that the five-year, $262 billion American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Financing Act of 2012 would come to the House floor not as a package, but in three pieces: an energy bill, a transportation bill, and a bill that would finance spending through reforms made to the federal pension system. Because of bipartisan opposition to the proposal from a large group of rank-and-file members, the speaker announced that he will modify the legislation before presenting it for a vote early in March. Details of the changes were not yet available.

As drafted, the House proposal would use general fund appropriations to finance transit programs, a notable and potentially destabilizing shift from the current approach, which uses fuels tax receipts in the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund. The House would cut Amtrak’s budget by 25 percent and eliminate the TIGER grant program, while increasing annual funding for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to $1 billion and increasing the maximum federal project share from 33 percent to 49 percent.

The Senate is considering a two-year, $109 billion transportation reauthorization bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. The legislation would level-fund highway programs after adjusting for inflation. Like the House, the Senate would allocate $1 billion annually to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and increase the maximum federal project share to 49 percent. Seeking to protect the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, the Senate Finance Committee approved a $9.6 billion funding offset package to close the gap between the transportation proposal and the amount of revenue traditionally brought in to the Highway Trust Fund.

The funding provisions of a final transportation reauthorization bill will affect infrastructure projects as well as public transit in many municipalities. The legislation will determine whether competitive programs that directly fund municipal transportation projects, like the TIGER grant program, continue and at what level of funding. The legislation will also determine federal funding levels for several state transportation improvement projects in Massachusetts.

At the MMA’s Annual Business Meeting in January, members adopted a Resolution on the Transportation Finance Crisis that calls on Congress and the president to immediately reauthorize the surface transportation funding program and to maintain the federal fuels tax as a financing mechanism.

Written by J. Catherine Rollins