Senate Committee Passes Highway Bill, Infrastructure Groups Split on Reactions

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The Senate Environment and Public Works committee passed a two-year highway bill -- and now the wrangling begins. To get a comprehensive transportation bill, three other Senate committees must also pass companion legislation -- Banking, which covers transit; Commerce, which covers rail; and Finance, which figures out how to pay for it all.

After that, Senate leadership has to move the bill to the full Senate floor, and then a conference committee with the House of Representatives.

"The bill before us is completely bipartisan, and therefore nobody will think it is perfect," EPW Chair Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in her opening remarks. A bitter fight had ensued resulting in the final decision to strip a requirement that states spend a specific percent of federal money on non-car transportation projects. Instead, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) got his wish that states can choose what portion goes to bike or pedestrian projects. His opening statement explained the compromises:

"The bill reduces the number of programs by 2/3, eliminating or consolidating those that are duplicative or don’t serve a national transportation goal. One of the areas of greatest contention was transportation enhancements, or TE. This was a pot of money in the last three highway bills that could only be used for bike paths, walking trails, highway beautification, museums, and a number of other activities that I believe do not reduce congestion or improve the condition of our crumbling infrastructure.  I would have preferred to eliminate this funding altogether, but Senator Boxer believes strongly in TE funding and activities."

The long road ahead spells uncertainty for transportation funding. The current Senate version differs from the House version in key ways -- the EPW bill is two years, while the House version is six for instance -- so the conference committee will be contentious if the Senate does pass a full transportation bill this term.

The prospect of having no bill at all may be why reaction from infrastructure advocates is measured -- and contradictory.

Building America's Future hailed the passage as a "significant step forward in addressing our nation’s vast transportation infrastructure needs."  The group's president, Marcia Hale, said:

"The bill includes many of the critical reforms that Building America’s Future has long supported including consolidating or eliminating programs; taking steps to ensure that projects can be completed faster such as expanding innovative contracting methods and encouraging early coordination between relevant reviewing agencies; increasing Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) authorization; including greater accountability; and recognizing the importance of reliable goods movement by establishing a new Freight Network Program."

She also called for a longer term authorization bill that gives states greater flexibility to toll their interstates.

Meanwhile, U.S. PIRG -- usually in the same camp -- said the "Senate transportation bill misses opportunity for historic change."

Phineas Baxandall, the group's senior transportation analyst, said:

"The Senate bill falls far short of the kind of decisive progress that America’s transportation system needs... It contains some half measures and a few meaningful fixes, as well as real missteps that we hope will be addressed."

While he praised "initial steps" toward accountability for states to maintain roads in good repair, his reaction was largely negative.

“One cause for concern is the elimination of three programs that have been important for bike and pedestrian transportation and for integrating larger transportation assets into public streetscapes."... Another disappointment in the Senate bill is that it appears to only maintain the currently inadequate portion of transportation funds directed to public transit. America needs to invest in more and better public transportation to meet the rising demand for ridership and reduce our nation’s dependence on oil. Public transit spending will be the jurisdiction of the Banking Committee, but the Environment and Public Works Committee has not made financial room for greater transit investment.

Transportation For America offered moderated praise, calling the passage a "significant opportunity" and gently pressuring to include non-car funding, a key sticking point between Democrats and Republicans on the committee:

"We will work with Chairman Boxer and Ranking Member Inhofe and the rest of the Committee to ensure that there is dedicated funding that prioritizes bicycle and pedestrian projects, strong workforce development provisions and smart transportation planning reforms."

It's unclear how -- and when -- the House and Senate will reach a compromise.