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Transportation Nation

Proposal to Raise Gas Tax Has Allies Outside Congress

Thursday, December 05, 2013

WAMU

The federal gasoline tax, last raised in 1993 to 18 cents per gallon, would increase five cents per year over three years and have future increases tied to inflation, under legislation proposed Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). With the Highway Trust Fund set to go broke in ten months, the congressman called on leaders of both parties and the Obama administration to raise the tax to replenish the pot of money that pays for rail and road improvements.

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Transportation Nation

BREAKING: Congress Close to Deal on 18-Month Transportation Bill

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

UPDATED WITH BARBARA BOXER'S STATEMENT  Congressional negotiators appear to be locking down an 18-month transportation bill-- just before current funding expires at the end of the week.

Final numbers on the developing deal are not yet available, and aides stress none of its provisions are final until the whole package is inked. But aides from both parties  confirmed key details for Transportation Nation, and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) sent out an email indicating that it's basically a done deal.

“I am so glad that House Republicans met Democrats half way, as Senate Republicans did months ago," she wrote. “The bill is funded at current levels."

Politically-charged provisions forcing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and rolling back EPA rules on coal ash will not be included in the final deal, according to aides. That could make it more difficult for House GOP leaders to secure votes for a final deal from Republicans, who have voted several times in favor of the measures and in many cases insisted on its inclusion in the highway bill.

In a concession by Democrats, extra money for land and water conservation looks to be left out of the deal. There are likely to be further reductions to transportation "enhancement" requirements forcing states to spend a certain portion of their highway funds on bike paths and other non-road projects.

Boxer's email referenced an agreement on the enhancement requirements.  "For the first time, we send half of the funds for bike paths and pedestrian walkways directly to local entities," she wrote, "and we protect those funds while giving states more flexibility on their share."

Republicans appear to have scored a victory on the pace of environmental reviews for projects. While the original Senate bill limited reviews to 15 years, the deal afoot among conferees limits reviews to eight years, aides said. The final deal also appears to include extra money for rural schools and for Gulf Coast states ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Lawmakers and aides are rushing to ink the deal and file it in the House before midnight Wednesday. That would allow the House to pass the agreement Friday and still comply with House Republicans' three-day preview requirement before bills can reach the floor. The transportation deal is likely to get paired up with a separate deal preventing a student loan rate hike.

Senate aides say it is unlikely senators would remain in town Friday to stamp the deal with an official vote. That means senators would have to have broad agreement to approve it by unanimous consent some time after the House acts.

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Transportation Nation

Senate Moves to Shake up Transportation Conference Amid Hill Sniping

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) (photo by Todd Zwillich)

Senate negotiators tried to break an impasse with House Republicans over a surface transportation bill Tuesday, thought the proffer did little to quell a cross-Capitol war of words.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate-House conference committee trying to reach a transportation bill deal, told reporters she and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) sent the deal toward the house earlier in the day. Boxer said the offer was "very warmly received" but also acknowledged it skirted contentious political issues including building the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and gutting new coal ash regs from the EPA.

Boxer dismissed reports from earlier in the day suggesting the conference was near collapse, and that another temporary extension would be needed to keep highway funding going past a June 30 deadline.

A spokesman for conference vice-chair Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said, "we will take a look at the proposal and discuss it with our conferees." It was a noncommittal response skirting the obvious: Time is running short to get a deal by the end of the month, and House conservatives are dead against agreeing to a transportation deal that doesn't go over President Barack Obama's head and force approval of the Keystone pipeline.

"We're going back and forth on all that stuff. I think in the final analysis it all has to be in there," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a Republican negotiator. On Boxer and Inhofe's offer, Hoeven said, "Let's just say we're still working on it."

Those issues could still be worked out. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared to be helping quiet talk of a faltering conference Tuesday afternoon. Asked it negotiations were falling apart, Reid said, "I don't have any dire statement to give."

But then things got heated. "There's a battle going on between (House Speaker John) Boehner and (House GOP Leader Eric) Cantor as to whether or not there should be a bill," Reid told reporters. "Cantor, of course, I'm told by others that he wants to not do a bill to make the economy worse, because he feels that's better for them. I hope that that's not true," Reid continued.

The statement elicited swift and sharp reactions from House GOP leaders.

“Leader Reid’s claims are ridiculous and patently false.  Rather than making up stories that have no basis in reality, Leader Reid should follow the House’s example and focus on pro-growth measures that will get the economy going and get people back to work,” read a statement from a Cantor spokesperson.

Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel was less diplomatic about Reid's comments. “That’s bullshit.  House Republicans are united in our desire to get a sensible, reform-minded transportation bill done, including job-creating energy initiatives like Keystone.”

Aides to Reid did not clarify his statement. But one aide described Senate Democrats as "not pessimistic" about the chances of an agreement by June 30.

Earlier, Boxer said that issues outside the Senate offer, including Keystone, coal ash regulations, and financing changes, would have to be "worked out later."

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Transportation Nation

Negotiators Kick Off Highway Bill Conference; Boxer Warns "Failure Is Not An Option"

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

(Photo (cc) by Flickr user Crazy George)

Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate began their formal conference over surface transportation funding Tuesday, in a negotiation that could take up to a month and where tens of billions of dollars are at stake.

Lawmakers from both sides of the Capitol gathered in one of the Hill's largest hearings rooms to begin hashing out an agreement between the chambers. On the table: A two-year Senate bill worth $109 billion backed by a broad bipartisan vote, versus House demands to cut spending, reform federal projects, cut regulations and force approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

The extension governing highway funding expires June 30. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) the champion of the Senate bill and the conference committee chair, told lawmakers they'll need to reach agreement by early June in order to get an agreement written and passed in time.

It won't be easy. Several tries left House Republicans unable to agree amongst themselves on a multi-year transportation policy. Meanwhile, many House conservatives consider the Senate bill a non-starter, largely because of its funding levels.

Now House Republicans begin the the conference at a distinct disadvantage. House and Senate Democrats are strongly behind the Senate bill, as are many Senate Republicans. The White House has also strongly backed the Senate's bid. SenatorJames Inhofe (R-Okla) leaned on House conservatives to accept the Senate's bill, which he helped craft with Boxer.

"I have every expectation we are going to be able to do that which the majority of Americans want done," he said.

House Republicans hold a few cards and are making some demands of their own. They want the Senate's $109 billion price tag reduced and are pushing hard to force the White House to accept final construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. They have also laid down markers repealing pending EPA coal ash pollution regulations.

"Let's not just spend more money. Let's have some serious reforms," urged Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) the conference committee's vice-chair.

Boxer began the proceedings with a long list of lobbying and interest organizations that support the Senate bill, ranging from AAA and trucking groups to the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"If the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce can work together, then surely we can work together," she said, adding that "failure is not an option for us."

But the reality is that in the 112th Congress, failure is, in fact, an option. Leadership aides in the House and Senate predicted that the election-year talks would likely lead to an agreement rejected by House Republican rank-and-file members. That could force Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to pass any final agreement with the help of large numbers of Democrats. Failing that, Congress can do what it's done nine times since 2005 and simply pass another extension of current law to avoid a shutdown.

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Transportation Nation

It's Baaaack: GOP Guns for Another 90-day Highway Extension

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

House Republicans now say they'll take another shot at temporarily extending the gas tax and other highway bill provisions, after watching their last two attempts falter earlier this week.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fl.) told reporters off the House floor Wednesday he would reintroduce a 60-day extension, but that this time Republicans planned to bring it to the floor under a procedure requiring a simple 218-vote majority to pass. The vote is likely to come tomorrow, just before the House leaves on a two-week recess.

Minutes later, Mica returned to say he was "recalculating," and that he would also file a 90-day straight extension to the existing highway bill. Mica had talked it over with GOP leaders and said the 90-day extension is what he "was told to do." Republicans aides said part of the issue was that a 60-day extension would likely expire while Congress was out of town on the Memorial Day recess, complicating efforts to get a House-Senate agreement on a final Highway bill.

Twice already this week Republicans have had to yank extensions off the floor after trying to use an expedited procedure requiring a 2/3 majority for passage. Wednesday's move makes it easier to pass the bill because it requires just a simple majority. The bill would then go to the Senate, where Democrats have been pushing hard for House Republicans to pass the Senate's version of the legislation. Earlier this month the Senate passed a $109 billion, two-year Highway Bill with a 74-vote bipartisan majority.

Senate Democrats even trotted out the well-worn Washington device of a countdown clock, ticking down to midnight Saturday when existing authority to collect the 18.4-cent gas tax and fund highway and road projects expires.

Senate Dems have said they have no interest in an extension but have not gone as far as to say a temporary bill is off the table. That suggests a shutdown Saturday is highly unlikely.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not indicated that Democrats would accept either a 60- or 90-day extension, leaving open the possibility that it may not pass the Senate by this weekend. Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) explained that Republicans strategy was to pass a temporary extension and the "pray that the Senate didn't call our bluff and things shut down next week."

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Transportation Nation

Dems Trip Up GOP on Highway Extension Again

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

House Speaker John Boehner (photo by Todd Zwillich)

For the second straight day, House Democrats have foiled an attempt by Republicans to pass a temporary Highway Bill extension designed to avoid a suspension of the gas tax and a shutdown of highway programs March 31.

Republicans were forced to pull a 60-day extension from the House floor Tuesday afternoon after Democrats refused to support the bill. Republicans were using an expedited procedure requiring support from 2/3 of the chamber for passage. That's just a day after a 90-extension was yanked under similar circumstances.

Democrats are sticking to their position that the House should take up the two-year, $109 billion Highway Bill the Senate passed earlier this month with 74 votes. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned House Republicans two weeks ago that they would have to accept the Senate bill -- or one similar to it -- unless they could reach agreement on their own broader measure. That never happened, and last week Boehner was back to panning the Senate bill.

Tuesday's move turns up the heat on House Republicans to either accept the Senate's bill or use a slower procedure for a temporary extension. The latter choice seems far more likely, as it will allow the Speaker to pass an extension with a bare majority of the House -- and avoid a revolt from conservatives unhappy with the Senate package.

There are a still a few days to go before current highway law (and the 18.4 cent gas tax feeding the Highway Trust Fund) expires. Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker Boehner, told Transportation Nation in an email, "There is only one reason this bill will not be voted on tonight:  House Democrats are playing political games with our nation’s economy.”

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Transportation Nation

House GOP Scraps Vote on 90-Day Highway Bill Extension

Monday, March 26, 2012

(Washington, D.C.) House Republicans leaders scrapped plans to vote on a 90-day Highway Bill extension Monday evening after it was clear the measure lacked enough support to pass.

The move further complicates an already murky situation between the House and Senate just days before current highway legislation expires on March 31.

House Republicans had planned to pass a 90-day extension under an expedited procedure requiring 2/3 of the chamber's support. But Democrats balked at the extension. They favor a two-year, $109 billion bill that was passed with 74 votes by the Senate earlier this month. GOP leaders were forced to yank the measure from floor consideration when it became clear the 90-day extension lacked sufficient votes to pass.

"We are in the midst of bipartisan conversations about a short-term extension of the highway bill," said Michael Steel, a spokesperson for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). " To facilitate those conversations, the House vote on an extension will occur later this week rather than tonight."

Senate Democrats say they have no interest in a temporary extension, part of pressure tactics designed to get the House to accept the two-year bill. Still, Democrats haven't said that a temporary extension is off the table as a way to allow further House-Senate talks.

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Transportation Nation

BREAKING: Highway Bill Could Be Headed for a Standoff

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

People with a stake in the billions of dollars worth of highway funds and gas taxes may have breathed a temporary sigh of relief a few hours ago when Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica said the GOP would opt for a temporary extension next week.

Not so fast.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says he's not interested in putting a temporary extension of the Highway bill on the Senate floor if the House passes one next week, given that the Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion version of its own last week with 74 votes.

The current Highway bill extension runs out March 31. That means the Senate can keep the program going by passing the House's temporary extension, which will likely include a motion to go to conference with the Senate.

"I'm not inclined to do that," Reid told reporters Tuesday.

If Reid sticks to his guns, that leaves Option Two: Force the House to swallow the Senate's two-year bill or, Option Three: Risk being held responsible for a shutdown reminiscent of last summer's Federal Aviation Administration shutdown fiasco.

Time is running short, and House Republicans have already said they won't try for a version of their 5-year bill before the Easter recess. "There's plenty of time for the House to pass our bill," a Senate Democratic leadership aid says.

The aide wouldn't go so far as to close down all possibilities of a temporary extension as House Republicans now want. But the tough talk has started, and along with it a game of chicken with a March 31 deadline.

"The House had their chance, and they blew it," the aide said.

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Transportation Nation

Here We Go: Senate Set to Start Highway Bill Votes Thursday

Thursday, March 08, 2012

After weeks of behind-the-scenes brinksmanship, the Senate is finally set to begin casting votes on its highway and infrastructure bill Thursday.

Republicans and Democrats reached an agreement late Wednesday on a list of 30 amendments to the two-year, $109 billion transportation bill. Senate aides said they expect the body to begin voting in the morning Thursday and continue throughout the day, a marathon voting session known around the Senate as a "vote-a-rama."

"We can finish this tomorrow. It's a huge job," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said while announcing the agreement on Wednesday night on the Senate floor. Democratic aides later clarified that the amendment list was long enough that a vote on final approval of the highway bill would likely get pushed to next Tuesday.

The Senate won't vote on substantive transportation amendments right away. A list of controversial amendments on unrelated issues is due up first, including expansions in offshore drilling, boiler regulations, offshore tax havens and lowering of corporate tax rates. The Senate is also set to vote on a pair of amendments pushing the Obama Administration on its politically-charged decision to delay construction of parts of the Keystone XL pipeline.

After that, substantive, or "germain" amendments are set to follow on a range of transportation issues, including toll road rules, bridge construction and an amendment sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would do away with a ban on restaurants at interstate rest stops.

Final passage Tuesday would see the Senate approve its version of the highway bill while the House is out of town on a week-long recess with its own version of the bill very much in doubt. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to sell skeptical conservatives on a version of a five-year, $260 billion highway bill. The Senate's bill, which is bipartisan but unpopular with many House Republicans, was presented as the bill of last resort if House members can't reach an agreement on a bill of their own.

The law governing the Highway Trust Fund expires at the end of the month, and with House Republicans stalled and the body out of town next week, it is looking increasing unlikely that Congress will pass a final bill by the deadline. That would require lawmakers to pass a temporary extension until a broader agreement can be reached, or let highway programs shut down.

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Transportation Nation

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: Transit Cuts Could Pass House

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A map of Dallas Light Rail's proposed expansion. DART President Gary Thomas says similar expansions would be jeopardized under the House funding proposal.

Transit advocates are taking the House's threat to remove transit spending from the highway trust fund seriously.

"The idea that this bill is going nowhere couldn't be further from the truth," said Janet Kavinoky of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a conference call organized by the American Public Transportation Association. "The reports of the demise of this bill are greatly exaggerated."

"Both Democrats and Republicans agree that it's time to get a transportation bill done," Kavinoky added. "There are provisions in both the House and Senate bill that the other sides won't be inclined to agree on, but there's more in common than not in the bill."

That's what's got the transit advocates alarmed -- for the first time in thirty years, the House wants to remove transit from the highway trust fund, which gets a dedicated stream of funding from the gas tax.

"I spend a tremendous amount of time talking to Chambers of Commerce. Across the board, one of the greatest demands for transportation investment is in public transportation. The better and more efficient your workforce is, the more productive it is. For developers -- they recognize that public transportation is an integral part of creating successful developments. They're concerned about a lack of public commitment to public transit."

The advocates fear that if transit is made part of the yearly appropriations process, funding for long-term projects will dry up.  The problem of moving the trust fund solely to the highway side is that it creates revenue uncertainty that will increase borrowing costs, " said Dr. William Ankner of APTA.

"Transit is critical to the highway program. You can't build enough capacity. We don't have the resources to build our way out of the congestion," added Ankner, who noted there have been no attempts to remove transit from the trust fund in thirty years.

The House is expected to take up its transportation bill next week; the Senate will take up its version tomorrow.

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Transportation Nation

Senate Highway Bill Set to Kick Off Thursday

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has set in motion the procedure to move to the Senate Highway bill, cueing up its first test vote for Thursday.

Senators will vote then on whether to proceed to the $109 billion, two-year surface transportation bill known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21. The bill is expected to get the 60 votes needed to overcome delay tactics that have become standard practice in today's Senate.

The Senate Finance Committee Tuesday finished its markup attempt to bridge a $12 billion gap for the bill. The Highway Trust Fund is fed with gasoline excise taxes. But the money wasn't enough to fund all of the bill's projects and it was up to the Finance Committee to make up the difference. In the end, the panel came up with $10.5 billion.

Assuming MAP-21 gets 60 votes to proceed on Thursday, it'll then be open for amendments on the Senate floor. Reid has not said how long he's willing to let the amendment process go before trying to bring debate to a close.

Meanwhile House Republicans are still preparing to bring up their 5-year, $206 billion highway bill next week. The price tag has some conservative Republicans criticizing the plan, while controversial measures like opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling and forcing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline have Democrats in widespread opposition. Democrats are also up in arms over several of the bill's policy choices, including cuts to Amtrak and cuts to federal mass transit programs.

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Transportation Nation

TN MOVING STORIES: FAA Funding Agreement Reached; Tappan Zee Bridge Tolls' Worst Case Scenario; MTA, Union Resume Talks

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Top stories on TN: NYC held its first bicycle station community planning workshop. How the stimulus revived the electric car. One academic says NJ Governor Chris Christie’s hiring recommendations at the Port Authority far outpace his predecessor’s patronage hires. House Republicans rolled out parts of a $260 billion transportation infrastructure bill. President Obama dropped by the DC auto show. Karachi has the most beautiful buses in the world.  And: the history of Critical Mass rides.

Tappan Zee Bridge (photo by icadrews via flickr)

Lawmakers say they've reached an agreement on a $63 billion, four-year bill to extend the Federal Aviation Administration's operating authority and the agency's air traffic modernization effort. (AP via NPR)

The U.S. DOT is making $500 million available for a fourth round of TIGER grant funding. (DOT)

Engineers and transportation wonks are crunching numbers for the $5.2 billion Tappan Zee Bridge project to see what drivers might pay if toll revenue alone funds it. Worst-case scenario: $30 tolls by 2022, up from the current $5. (Crain's New York Business)

New York's MTA and the transit workers union will resume contract talks tomorrow. (Wall Street Journal)

Security video in the NYC death of cyclist Mathieu Lefevre differs from the description in the police report. (Streetsblog, New York Times)

The Motor City loses one of its rarest breeds: a woman car executive. (Forbes)

Florida Congressman John Mica needs to decide what district he'll run in. (Orlando Sentinel)

Boston's transit system set a modern ridership record in 2011 -- but those numbers will almost surely dip this year, as the T considers fare increases and service cuts. (Boston Globe)

General Motors’ bankruptcy unit has agreed to pay nearly $24 million to resolve environmental liabilities at Superfund sites in New Jersey, Maryland and Missouri. (Star-Ledger)

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said a Congressional Budget Office report that the highway trust fund would be empty by fiscal year 2014 shows President Obama has been right to call for increased funding for transportation projects. (The Hill)
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Transportation Nation

House GOP Unveils 5-Year, $260 Transpo Bill

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

House Republicans rolled out parts of a $260 billion transportation infrastructure bill Tuesday, casting the legislation as a major vehicle for job creation and energy production.

The five-year bill reauthorizes highway, transit and safety programs but also eliminates or consolidates dozens of existing federal functions. Supporters said its designed to streamline federally-funded projects, cut bureaucratic red tape and give states more flexibility to spend money on projects they prioritize.

Congress hasn't approved a "permanent" transportation bill since 2005, and if this one succeeds it will be the first successful bid following eight temporary extensions. But while groups representing the construction industry, trucking and other interests are supportive, Republicans and Democrats are bound to clash in an environment where parties have been more interested in showing their differences than their ability to compromise.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week he gave the bill little chance of passage.

Republicans are calling their bill the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, and House GOP leaders are targeting it for floor action later in February. But there are some big hurdles standing between the bill and President Obama's desk. More on that in an minute. First, here are some of the key provisions:

-A $260 billion, 5-year bill that feeds the Highway Trust Fund at $35 billion per year via the federal gas tax. Republicans intend to make up a sizable funding shortfall with revenue from expanded domestic energy production, including natural gas, offshore drilling, shale and other projects. Republicans stressed that the bill contains no earmarks, which is notable considering that the transportation authorization bill is a traditional home for thousands of them.

-Consolidation or elimination of some 70 federal highway and transit programs

-Elimination of transportation "enhancements" that require states to spend up to 10% of their federal highway money on non-highway projects like bike paths or beautification projects. "We're going to get the maximum amount of money in our real infrastructure and hopefully people will see the difference," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fl., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

-No federal Infrastructure Bank. Instead the bill expands from 10% to 15% the amount of federal highway dollars states can put into their own infrastructure banks, if they've got them.

-Expedited environmental review for many federal projects. Mica stressed that Republicans aren't "running over" environmental protection rules, but that times for those reviews should be shortened. The bill also shrinks some consecutive environmental assessments into concurrent ones.

-$1 billion in expanded funding for state and local transpo loans under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). It's a popular program, and that one has bipartisan support.

-Cuts AMTRAK funding by 25% in 2012 and 2013.

-Has no provisions for high speed rail except for what Mica described as "placeholders"

-Increases the allowable weight for trucks to 126,000 lbs, another provision that has the rail industry hopping mad.

-New incentives for states to require that convicted drunk drivers must use breathalyzer locks to start their cars. Beverage and Restaurant groups are up in arms over the provision and are vowing a fight. "We're going to work with everybody. The bill isn't final," said Mica, acknowledging the controversy.

And final it is not. Mica's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is set to mark up the bill in a marathon session Thursday. So long, in fact, that the chairman urged reporters to bring "hemorrhoid cream" to the session. But that's only part of the work that needs to be done. GOP leaders intend to use expanded energy revenue to help pay for the bill's big funding gap. That means that other committee's, including the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee have to get involved to authorize new projects and raise money.

After that's all done the bill goes head-to-head with a smaller, two-year Senate bill with significantly fewer reforms but higher spending for the Highway Trust Fund.

And here's a twist to watch: Over the weekend House Speaker John Boehner suggested Republicans may use the bill as a vehicle to try and force President Obama to approve the controversial Keyston XL oil sands pipeline. That's assuming the pipeline isn't passed as part of a deal to extend payroll tax breaks and unemployment benefits through the end of the year.

Mica, who is fond of stressing the commonalities he and Senate Democrats have over transportation issues, laughed when asked if inclusion of Keystone XL might upset the chances for an election-year compromise.

"What are you, some kind of troublemaker," he said.

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Transportation Nation

Boehner: Keystone XL to Ride on GOP's Highway Bill

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Truck hauling pipeline pipe in Kansas (photo by Steve Meirowsky via Wikimedia Commons)

House Republicans intend to use their upcoming highway and infrastructure bill to push for approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, Speaker John Boehner said Sunday.

“If it’s not enacted before we take up the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, it’ll be part of it,” Boehner said during an interview on ABC's "This Week".

The controversial pipeline has become a political flashpoint between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans demanded an expedited Obama Administration decision on the pipeline's approval as part of a deal temporarily extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits back in December. The administration rejected the approval earlier this month, setting off GOP criticism that President Obama's political allies were preventing a project that could grow jobs.

House and Senate negotiators are now bargaining over a one-year payroll tax extension, and Boehner's statement suggests Republicans are keen to avoid another bruising confrontation with Democrats over the pipeline issue.

“[E]xtending the payroll tax cut that the president has called for, the House has already passed the year-long extension.  We are in a formal conference with the Senate, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to resolve this fairly quickly," Boehner said.

Instead, it appears Keystone may become one of a long list of domestic energy projects Republicans try to promote in their upcoming highway and infrastructure bill. The five-year bill calls for $260 billion in highway funding, financed partially through expansions in domestic energy production. Details of the bill are expected this week, and House Republican aides say they expect it to come to the floor in February.

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Transportation Nation

House GOP Marries Domestic Energy to Transportation Funds

Thursday, November 17, 2011

John Boehner (center), with representatives Tim Murphy (L) and Doc Hastings (R), introducing the American Jobs & Infrastructure Act

House Republicans unveiled the outlines of a transportation authorization bill Thursday, relying on controversial methods of paying for highways that are already arousing the ire of Democrats.

The GOP plan pays for highways by expanding domestic energy production in three areas: offshore oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, oil shale, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, otherwise known as ANWR.

In addition to domestic energy, the plan also calls for reforms and cuts in infrastructure programs. It eliminates so-called "transportation enhancements" that states now must fund out of federal highway dollars.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), flanked by several House GOP committee chairmen, teased the five-year bill for reporters but offered few specifics. The bill seeks to expand domestic energy production and also streamline and deregulate federally funded infrastructure projects. It's part of an effort to both fund highway construction and stretch scarce federal dollars further.

Some specifics of the bill were first reported Wednesday evening by Transportation Nation.

Republicans leaders want to use  expanded energy production to try and  match Senate Democrats' on highway funding, according to lawmakers familiar with the plan. Senate Democrats have offered a 2-year, $54 billion package for the Highway Trust Fund. That would suggest Republicans' Highway bill could run as high as $130 billion over five years, though the number could drop significantly if streamlining and deregulation cut the cost of doing projects.

"Our bill links job-creating energy production and infrastructure together," Boehner said at Thursday press briefing.

But Democrats were quick to lash out at the plan, even though it still exists only in outline form and has no price tag attached.

"They're not serious," said Rep. Nick Rahall, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He was referring to drilling in ANWR, a perennial partisan flashpoint in Congress and the epitome of 2008's Republican refrain, "Drill, baby, drill".

"Why would they talk about something that they know is going to raise the wrath and anger of our side," Rahall said. "We've been through this before."

Hearings are set to begin Friday, when the House Committee on Natural Resources is scheduled to hold a hearing entitled "ANWR: Jobs, Energy and Deficit Reduction."

Republicans are stressing the first two. Boehner late last week railed against President Obama's decision to delay construction of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, saying it would prevent the creation of 20,00o jobs. Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) Thursday said ANWR's North Slope could hold as many as 10.5 billion barrels of oil.

Still, politics aside, revenue is the big question. Democrats were quick to point out that expansions in offshore drilling royalties would only net $1 billion to $2 billion over ten years. And it dwarfs on-land drilling or shale production.

The bill is also, in large measure, the Republicans' answer to President Obama's election-year push for direct infrastructure spending as a vehicle for job creation. Democrats have spent more than a month applying political pressure to Republicans, pitting infrastructure projects and other popular programs against GOP opposition to tax increases on the wealthy. Boehner cast the bill in economic--and political--terms.

"We don't need more short-term stimulus gimmicks," he said. He decried "meddling and micromanaging our economy."

Boehner and other Republicans aren't talking about where they intend to get the money to pay for the bill. "They're not all available today," Boehner said, when asked about pay-fors for the plan. Boehner said he hopes to see the plan pass out of the House by the end of the year.

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Transportation Nation

Boehner to Unveil 5-Year Transpo Bill Thursday

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

(Photo (cc) by Flickr user scot63us)

(Washington, D.C) House Republicans will unveil a  five-year transportation and highway bill Thursday that matches Senate Democrats in highway funding levels, according to a member of Congress familiar with the bill.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) plans to roll out the bill Thursday morning and pitch it as a major jobs initiative, countering a charge from President Obama and other Democrats that the GOP won't support direct job creation.

Republicans are likely to draw attention to relatively high funding levels in their bill. It will go up against a Senate alternative funding the Highway Trust Fund at $54 billion over two years. The House version, at five years, will be "longer and at least as big" in terms of highway funding, the lawmaker said.

One thing Boehner likely won't reveal Thursday is how the unexpectedly generous bill will be paid for. And this is guaranteed to be a major sticking point with Democrats. Republicans are dead set against any tax increases, for gasoline or for anything else. While Boehner has pointed to royalties for expanded domestic oil drilling as one funding source, that's unlikely to be a major component. Such royalties yield only $800 million to $1 billion over 10 years, and the Highway Trust Fund is tens of billions short if construction projects stay at anywhere near their present pace.

About $8 billion comes from a spend-down on the $22 billion currently held in the fund. Beyond that, "Boehner won't reveal the final (funding) levels until he reveals the pay-fors," the lawmaker said.

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich

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Transportation Nation

No-Drama Extensions for FAA, Transpo, on Tap in Congress

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Washington, DC -- Even the most rabid prize fighters go to their corners to rest.

Just six weeks after an ugly and embarrassing showdown that shuttered the Federal Aviation Administration for several days, the House on Tuesday easily extended the agency's authorization for four months. They even combined it with a six-month extension of controversial federal surface transportation legislation. The melded package passed the House on a voice vote.

Now the package heads to the Senate, and while easy passage is never guaranteed, it appears headed for approval by week's end there too.

So how did we get from a toxic FAA shutdown in August to an easy, drama-free extension in September? A combination of political pressure and progress on broader issues are at play.

Republicans returned from the August recess last week acknowledging what they said was public disgust with Washington dysfunction. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) stressed that government shutdowns and brinkmanship do no good for a flagging economy. And with President Barack Obama now trying to hold lawmakers' to account for some election-year job-creation, the premium is now on cooperation--or at least the appearance of it.

In August, the FAA shutdown because Senate Democrats wouldn't accept a House Republican bill that cut about $16 million from a rural airport subsidy program known as the Essential Air Service. House Transportation Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) was seen by many to be intentionally antagonizing Democrats like Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

But the public, largely blind to the struggles of career lawmakers, saw it as a failure of an already failing Congress. Both sides seemed loathe to repeat the exercise so soon.

A senior House GOP aide maintained that the shutdown was entirely the fault of the Senate Democratic leadership. "It didn't make anybody in Congress look good," he said.

That conclusion by House leaders prevailed this week after Mica crafted another FAA extension bill, this one with budget cuts to the agency almost guaranteed to enrage Democrats. The bill was quickly supplanted by one crafted by House leaders that combines an essentially "clean" FAA extension with a highway bill extension at current funding levels.

"I had crafted another FAA authorization," Mica said in an interview Tuesday, just after House passage of the temporary extensions package. "It's basically been a good day. There have been some tough days to lead to a good day," he said.

But negotiations are also moving ahead on some of the tough political issues still dividing Republicans and Democrats in a separate, long-term FAA reauthorization. On Tuesday, Reid linked the easy FAA and highway bill temporary reauthorizations to progress on bigger issues in the FAA permanent bill.

"We're working very very hard to come up with a way of getting the FAA bill done on a permanent basis and getting the highway bill done on a longer term," Reid said.

Neither Mica nor Reid would elaborate on the issues they're discussing in longer term bills. But many of the issues are well-known. Republicans have insisted on repealing an Obama Administration rule, enforced through the National Mediation Board, making it easier for workers at non-union airlines and rail companies to organize. Republicans, both in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, are also going after a the White House for a National Labor Relations Board ruling that sanctioned Boeing for moving operations from Washington State to  South Carolina, where union protections are relatively lax.

"We're working very well with the leadership in the House, convincing them that we're doing our best, I'm convinced they're doing their best to try to get these done on a longer term basis," Reid said.

It is, of course, too early to say whether this-week's detente will lead to agreements between the parties on the FAA and sighway bills. The labor issues in the FAA bill play to the political cores of both parties. And House Republicans and Senate Democrats remain billions of dollars apart on their versions of transportation funding over the next several years.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said the temporary deal merely buys more time for a broader deal that may or may not materialize. "There's been a lot of happy talk, but there hasn't yet been any actual show of compromise," the aide said.

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Transportation Nation

House Extends Trust Fund, Awaiting a Fight

Thursday, March 03, 2011

(Washington, D.C.--Todd Zwillich) The House voted on Wednesday to extend the nation's surface transportation law, forestalling an inevitable debate on how to restructure highway funding in an age of deficits.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the Surface Transportation Act (link) until September 30, the end of the current fiscal year. The bill authorizes $580 billion over the next decade and about $53 billion this year. Most of that spending, about $42.5 billion, is to be funneled through the Highway Trust Fund.

The extension comes as Congress prepares for a broader debate over how to fund--or cut--federal highway and transit spending to help fill budget gaps. The Highway trust fund is financed with the 18.5-cent federal gas tax, which in recent years has failed to keep up with the demands of infrastructure building and upkeep. That's led lawmakers to dip into general government revenues to make up the difference, a move that is about to become a no-no under Republican leadership in the House.

The House's move comes a day after the release of a Government Accountability Office report that criticized widespread duplication and inefficiency at the Department of Transportation. It concludes DOT has become an uncoordinated and largely haphazard collection of programs. The Obama Administration agrees for the most part; it proposed a consolidation scheme for DOT in its Fiscal 2012 Budget.

All of this points to a tough transportation debate later this year, ranging from the future of the Highway Trust Fund and infrastructure spending to cutting programs--wasteful or otherwise--from DOT.

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Transportation Nation

Interview: John Mica says Transpo Bill Needs "Alternate Means of Financing"

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Official Government Photo of John Mica

Transportation Nation's Todd Zwillich spoke with Republican John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, about rumors of raiding the Highway Trust Fund, stretching infrastructure money farther, and why the new chairman is so optimistic he can get a transportation bill passed in a partisan congress.

"The Highway Trust Fund will remain the purview of the Transportation Committee and can’t be used for other uses."

Listen to the interview here:

TRANSCRIPT:

Todd Zwillich: Thank You Mr. Mica. With the new rules coming in with the new Congress, you have heard Democrats ... warning that the Highway Trust Fund will be raided under the new budgetary rules that were passed by Republicans… Is that a real fear?

Congressman John Mica: Well

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Transportation Nation

Republicans Say Highway Trust Fund Won't Be Raided

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

[UPDATED: With added quotes.]

(Washington, D.C. -- Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) Republicans in the House of Representatives say they've been reassured by their newly-empowered leadership about the future of the Highway Trust Fund.

Democrats have been spending first weeks of the new Congress--in response to headlines touting the new Republican House Majority and its austere rules on government spending--complaining that the GOP was preparing to raid the fund to use the money elsewhere in the federal budget. That is a possibility because rules adopted by the GOP require any increases in government spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere. The big pool of money that is the Highway Trust Fund is an attractive reservoir for lawmakers who don't want to raise taxes or cut popular social programs.

But newly appointed Republican Chairman of the Transportation Committee, John Mica (R-Fla.) tells Transportation Nation in an interview that won't happen. "I think what was put in place were some good protective measures. ... The Highway Trust Fund will remain the purview of the Transportation Committee and can’t be used for other uses."

Listen to the interview with John Mica:

The Highway Trust Fund is funded largely by an 18.4 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax. The money is meant for road, bridge, highway and transit projects.

Democrats are unconvinced the funds are safe. "They have said the firewall is down," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned reporters on Capitol Hill. "This is irresponsible to violate a law that created a trust fund for the American people." Reid asked rhetorically of the GOP, "Are they out of their mind?"

Turns out pro-transportation Republicans are bracing for cuts to the Trust Fund, but not in the way Democrats think.

Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), a high-ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says newly-mined House speaker John Boehner (R-Calif.) assured Republicans that new budget rules notwithstanding, Highway Trust Fund money won't get used for any other purpose.

Duncan said many Republican lawmakers went to Boehner with concerns about the fund's vulnerability as a revenue source. That was after organizations from the Chamber of Commerce to trucking and labor groups voiced similar worries. That's when Boehner offered the GOP conference his guarantee.

"As long as we stick by that, I'll be satisfied," Duncan said in an interview with Transportation Nation.

That's not to say the road projects will enjoy a bottom line close to what its been in years past. Rep. Mica has said that money from general government funds that for years supplemented the anemic trust fund is soon to dry up. "Now our challenge is taking diminishing revenues and making them go further. But I think we can do that by speeding up some of the process, cutting red tape and leveraging some of the funds we have better."

And keep in mind: Just because the GOP says it won't use trust fund money for other purposes doesn't mean its revenue can't be cut. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) who chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee acknowledged in an interview that some Republicans on his panel would like to lower the federal gas tax. "I know its under discussion," Camp said. He declined to elaborate. Mica, however said that's unlikely to happen. "I think it’s almost impossible to drop the rate." Though he added that he expects gas tax revenues to fall. "Fewer people are using gasoline. We have alternative fuels. The revenue will go down" whether we like it or not.

Both Mica and Duncan, who also counts himself a supporter of transit and infrastructure projects, suggest highways spending would be austere but not eviscerated. Duncan explained, "I think you're still going to see many billions spent on highways and transit in the coming years ... Just not as much as everybody wants. But that's just the way it is with almost everything now."

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