Senate Approves Austere Transpo Spending Bill; High Speed Rail Funding Plummets

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The Democratic-controlled Senate backed $108 billion in Fiscal 2012 federal transportation spending 69-30, flatlining budgets as Washington operates in a climate of spending cuts.

The bill passed after a long-delayed flourish of votes Tuesday.

It funds most transportation, transit and highway programs at or near levels for the Fiscal year that ended Sept 30. But when factored for inflation, it amounts to cuts to many programs. That’s largely because of new spending caps in place after Republicans and Democrats agreed to cuts during the federal debt limit fight last summer.

It also sets up a confrontation with the House Republicans, who have yet to approve a companion bill but are contemplating funding transportation at substantially lower levels. A House bill in the works now cuts $16 billion from transportation programs.

One big loser: High speed rail. The Senate bill has a mere $100 million for President Obama’s high speed rail initiative. While $10 billion has already gone to the program through stimulus and other spending, Congress is getting set to essentially zero it out for 2012. House Republicans have shown no appetite to fund high-speed rail further.

The Senate’s bill contains $55.3 billion in budget authority for the Department of Transportation. The rest is roughly $64 billion expected to be siphoned to federal highway programs through the Highway Trust Fund.

It leaves out a separate proposal from the White House that would create a $10 billion infrastructure bank to help capitalize infrastructure projects. That plan is tied up in election-year wrangling between Republicans and Democrats but may get a Senate vote in the coming weeks. Republicans have declared it dead in the House, however.

Here are a few of the funding levels contained in the bill:

$800 million in vehicle an driver safety programs

$550 million for “TIGER” infrastructure projects

$90 million for the "Sustainable Communities Initiative" at HUD

$41 billion in federal highway projects outside of the Highway Trust Fund

$25 million in transit energy efficiency grants

$8 million for new safety inspectors at the FAA

Meanwhile, the Senate turned away an amendment that would have limited how states can use “transportation enhancement” funds that normally go to aesthetic projects, sidewalks, bikelanes and other goodies. It killed another that would have pared back subsidies for some rural airports.

And, heartening planning groups, the Senate continued funding for the Obama administration's "sustainable communities" initiative, which is meant to encourage development that prioritizes transit and denser housing construction.

"We applaud the Senate for including continued funding for these programs in its proposed bill," said Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America."This means more efficient federal policies and a better use of taxpayer dollars. "

But that cheer may be short-lived: Even though the bill passed the Senate with solid bipartisan support, the fun is far from over. Thanks to partisan clashes over spending, the government is currently operating under a stopgap measure that expires November 18. If there’s no agreement on spending by then, Democrats and Republicans will either have to agree on another extension, or reach a grand bargain on spending for Fiscal 2012.

Transportation money could wriggle out from under the spending mess if the House passes its bill AND the House and Senate agree to a compromise by November 18. If not, it’s more negotiation not just over transpo dollars, but tied in with the rest of the government’s funding as well.

Bill summary is here.

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter: @toddzwillich