(UPDATED) The strained relationship between Ray LaHood and House Republican leadership was on full display Tuesday morning, when the transportation secretary sparred with members of a House subcommittee at a hearing about the Department of Transportation's budget request.
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By Ray LaHood, Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation
Last week Transportation Nation readers sent me a number of great questions to answer in my latest "On the Go" video. Today, I'd like to return the favor by answering one or two more questions right here on Transportation Nation.
Greg asked: "How can DOT give Americans more transit, walking, and biking options when the vast majority of the money will just be passed to state DOTs to buy more highways?"
Well, Greg, as I acknowledged in "On the Go," some readers of Transportation Nation may not be happy with every part of the new transportation bill, MAP-21. But at DOT, we aren't about to stop moving American transportation forward.
The new bill actually increases the portion of funding going to transit. It broadens the New Starts program to include projects that expand capacity on existing transit lines, and that's a great opportunity for cities with legacy systems. It also provides a big bump to our transit State Of Good Repair program.
And, although highway formula funding is passed to the states, states can still use some of those funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects and other activities that improve air quality and relieve congestion. It's true that MAP-21 permits the states to redirect transportation enhancement funding for purposes other than active transportation, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will.
If accessibility advocates and biking and walking advocates make their voices heard in their state capitols and in their county and city councils, there's no reason to believe that the tremendous progress we've made in the last three years can't continue.
(video of Secretary LaHood from "On The Go")
Tanya asked, "What's your favorite transit line? What city works the best?"
I don't know if Tanya is testing me here or not, but I've already been asked to pick my favorite Olympic sport, and I am not about to pick a favorite transit line or city and arouse the disappointment of every other community in America.
I will say that our nation's transit agencies are doing a great job of moving people where they need to go as safely and reliably as they can. Whether it's by bus, light rail, commuter rail, subway, paratransit, or streetcar, Americans are taking more than 10 billion transit rides each year. And the American Public Transportation Association recently reported that the first quarter of 2012 was the fifth consecutive quarter of ridership growth. As our economy continues to recover, those numbers are only going to increase even more. So my favorite transit line is any one that helps people get where they need to go.
I'm also pleased that MAP-21 gives the Federal Transit Administration a safety oversight role for the first time. We worked with Congress for more than two years to secure that authority, and I know the folks at FTA will hit the ground running in their new mission.
Okay, that's it from here. Thanks again to Transportation Nation and its readers. I appreciate your interest, and I encourage you to stay engaged.
A new riddle for you: when is an Interstate not an Interstate?
For decades, the criteria for designating new or improved roads as Interstate Highways were fairly straightforward. The Federal Highway Administration would certify “that the segment (a) is built to Interstate design standards and (b) connects to the existing Interstate System.” In short, Interstates had to be Inter-state.
But not any more. With the signing of MAP-21 last week, the law has been changed to do away with requirement (b) and allow disconnected pieces of floating “Interstate”—as long as the segment is “planned to connect to an existing Interstate System segment” in the next 25 years.
This might seem like a strange, even absurd, tweak to make, especially as part of such a contentious bill. But the provenance of the language makes its purpose clear. The change in definition was initially written as a special exception for Interstate 69, the so-called “NAFTA Highway, which has been in the works for twenty years. Congressman Blake Farenthold, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced matching bills last spring in their respective houses. Both are Republicans, but the entire Texas delegation supported the measure in lockstep.
Exceptions already existed to the standard Interstate designation. The non-contiguous states and territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico all have quasi-Interstates that were funded through the Interstate program despite the fact that they don’t meet the normal design criteria and, more obviously, will never connect to the rest of the system (unless we invade British Columbia and build some very impressive tunnels). But the new rule change is notable in that its reason for being is psychological, not geographical.
In practical terms, the relaxed criteria will allow Texas to erect Interstate 69 signs on about eighty miles of improved highway in the Lower Rio Grand Valley border region, despite the fact that these segments don’t actually connect to other Interstates. This new designation, local officials and businessmen believe, will enhance economic development opportunities, because developers, employers, and freight companies perceive an “Interstate” differently from a U.S. Highway, even if that U.S. Highway is built to Interstate standards.
This “Interstate” branding has been an obsession among the business community in the growing Lower Rio Grande Valley region, which bears the burden of being the largest metropolitan area in the country with no Interstate highway. Back in the mid-1990s, lobbyists for the Interstate 69 coalition (including Tom Delay’s brother Randy) won legislative approval to post “Future Interstate 69 Corridor” signs along U.S. 59, U.S. 281, and U.S. 77, from Texarkana through Houston and down to the Mexican Border.
The Interstate 69 project (about which I wrote a book) is the largest new construction project since the original interstate system, and has not been without controversy. Some states—such as Indiana, Arkansas, and Louisiana—are building Interstate 69 as a greenfield highway through untouched farms and forests. (And for about seven years, when Interstate 69 was part of Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor scheme, Texas was planning to do the same.) But other states—such as Kentucky and Texas—chose to upgrade existing highways to Interstate standards.
This is not the first time the rules have been changed to get Interstate 69 signs up faster. Last fall, the Federal Highway Administration made an exception and designated thirty-eight miles of the Western Kentucky Parkway as I-69, even though the road was not up to Interstate standards. Kentucky State Senator Dorsey Ridley told the Henderson Gleaner that the red white and blue signs held more magic than any actual roadwork could. “This will move economic development in a way people don’t realize,” he said “simply by putting up a shield called I-69.” Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez agreed, saying in a statement that "these improvements will create jobs now and encourage development in the future."
It’s a sign of our times—pardon the pun—that our public servants hope to create jobs by rebranding roadways, and that a reauthorization bill that failed to increase funding for real physical transformations to our infrastructure nevertheless lowered standards to allow more superficial transformations.
Now if we can just get the definition of “High Speed” rail down to 45 mph...
Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.
Now that the Transportation Bill conference committee has finally released a report (ongress has all of two days to pass it before the June 30th deadline on the current (ninth) extension. That’s not much time to fully analyze the entire 599-page Conference Report, but fortunately the committee provided a “brief” 91-page Joint Explanatory Statement.
It appears from first glance that the document is in almost every way a lukewarm compromise bill:
Spending on biking, walking, and beautification “transportation enhancements” remains, and half of those funds will be sent directly to metropolitan areas. That's a win for supporters. And half will be sent to the states, which are free to spend them on roads instead. That's a win for detractors.
Transportation For America, one of several organizations created around what many expected would be a transformative, next-generation transportation bill in 2009, made note earlier this week that the last major re-authorization had expired more than 1,000-days ago.
In the context of those last several years of gridlock, this conference report, by its mere existence, amounts to something of a breakthrough.
Something of a breakthrough. The conference report makes useful changes but fails to put the nation on the solid footing that transportation advocates of both parties have been yearning for. For example, it doesn’t replace or significantly augment gas-tax funding. Nor does it create or even allow a visionary level of investment--public or private.
It’s better than another punt, but by no means a touchdown, for anyone. We’ll call it a field goal. A victory for minimal competence. Some conference report highlights:
Key proposals that were not included:
Check back with us soon for more news and analysis.
Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.
(Billings, MT – YPR) - The chief architect of the Affordable Care Act says he wasn’t sitting in the U-S Supreme Court to hear the justices uphold the law. Instead Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) was working on passing a federal transportation bill.
“I was thinking of going over (to the Supreme Court) but frankly I have so much to do,” Baucus says. “I gotta work to get this highway bill passed.” He says sitting at the Court would be “very interesting. Historical. But not the best use of my time.”
Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He’s also a member of the subcommittee Conference Committee the current transportation bill which expires Saturday.
Baucus says he's pleased a deal could be reached even if it covers only about 2 1/2 years.
“That’s half a loaf. Usually highway bills are 5 or 6 years. That would be a whole loaf,” he says. A full re authorization would give better certainty to highway departments, contractors, and others to plan ahead, he says.
In reaching the compromise, Republicans on the conference committee gave up on two key points, including putting on a fast track a permit for the proposed Keystone X-L pipeline. Baucus also strongly supports that project.
“Am I disappointed? Yes. I am disappointed,” he says. “But look we got a highway bill. A highway bill absent Keystone is better than no highway bill at all.”
Baucus says the Keystone X-L pipeline project comes down to job creation for Montana and elsewhere and energy independence, “I think it’s a no brainer. It should be in there but it’s not. I’ll keep fighting for it.”
(UPDATED WITH SENATOR BOXER'S COMMENTS) The surface transportation bill appears to have been removed from life support and may be on the mend.
Positive statements are emanating all over the Capitol about House-Senate negotiations over surface transportation legislation. It was only days ago lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were pronouncing the deal dead and predicting another extension.
“The conferees have moved forward toward a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a highway reauthorization bill. Both House and Senate conferees will continue to work with a goal of completing a package by next week,” reads a joint statement issued by chief negotiators Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.)
Speaking in the hallway of the Senate building Thursday afternoon, Boxer said the House and Senate are working cooperatively -- and getting along better than they were two weeks ago. "We are really finishing up our work," she said. "If all goes the way it's going now, we should be through with most of the bill very soon, and then w'ell tackle the outstanding issues. I'm ... quite optimistic."
She added: "We'll be working over the weekend." (Listen to her comments below.)
"Significant progress is being made," Reid said. "We're certainly in better shape than we were 24 hours ago."
Of course, none of this necessarily means the conference will reach agreement. Lawmakers remain at odds over policy issues like environmental reviews for construction projects and so-called transportation "enhancement" projects like bike lanes and medians--not to mention political issues like a Republican bid to force construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and a repeal of EPA coal ash regulations.
If no agreement is reached by June 30th, the government's authority to spend money from the Highway Trust Fund expires.
Congressional leaders told negotiators involved in faltering transportation bill talks to bear down and make an agreement.
That was the message transmitted by lawmakers emerging from a meeting at Speaker John Boehner's Capitol offices on Tuesday afternoon. Chief GOP negotiator Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told lawmakers to "redouble our efforts" to try and reach an agreement by the end of this week.
Mica suggested negotiations are entering a final, critical stage. Other lawmakers have suggested that a six-month extension of current surface transportation policy will have to be drafted to prevent highway programs from shutting down June 30, when federal authority to spend money from the Highway Trust Fund expires.
"We're going to take it hour by hour," Mica said.
Mica said Boxer had offered new Senate proposals in the talks. But a House GOP leadership aide suggested Democrats have been unwilling to move far off of policy positions contained in the Senate bill, which passed in March with 74 votes.
Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich
It's not news that U.S. infrastructure is falling behind -- we've reported on this many times before. But it kind of caught our eye that the Council on Foreign Relations -- a New York-based think tank that tends to host talks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the like -- is issuing its own scathing report on the state of U.S.'s transportation infrastructure.
From the report:
Just a generation ago, the United States invested heavily to create one of the world's best transportation infrastructure networks. But now, with real investment stagnating even as much of the infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life, global economic competitors are leaving the United States behind. Along with a description of major policy initiatives, the report analyzes what's needed to get U.S. transportation infrastructure back on track.
You can read the full report here.
(Billings, MT – YPR) – Eight trail projects from across the country are being recognized for their outstanding use of money from the federal Recreational Trails Program (RTF) funds.
The 14th Annual Achievement Awards were chosen by the Coalition for Recreational Trails.
Winning trails meander through Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wyoming. See the full list below.
The awards will be handed out June 5, 2012 on Capitol Hill. The celebration is part of Great Outdoors Week 2012. Two states and members of Congress also will be recognized.
One of the winners is a multi-use trail in Billings, Montana. The Swords Park Trail, Phase 2 is on top of the sandstone cliffs that frame the north end of the state’s largest city.
“When you’re up on the trail system you have incredible views of the Yellowstone River valley, of Billings itself, and you can also see 2 mountain ranges in the distance – The Beartooth Mountains and the Pryor Mountains,” says Darlene Tussing, alternate modes coordinator for the city of Billings. “It really is a beautiful environment.”
The Montana trail is the winner in the Environment and Wildlife Compatibility category.
Phase 2 converted what was once a historic road bed and historic site for early settlers to the Yellowstone Valley. This includes Sacrifice Cliff and Skeleton Cliff, important to the Crow Indian Tribe. There’s also Yellowstone Kelly’s grave and Boot Hill, both tributes to early white settlers to the Yellowstone Valley.
The Montana trail project serves both motorized and non-motorized users. The Swords Park, Phase 2 also won the 2012 Montana State Parks “Trail of the Year Award.”
“Because we wanted to give people choices,” says Candi Beaudry, Director of the City-County Planning Department. “It’s not one mode over the other. We look at all users and that’s embodied in the city’s Complete Streets Policy.”
Funding for this project came from a variety of sources, including the RTP.
“It’s important for Congress to understand how programs passed and operated here in D-C have real life impact on opportunities for recreation at the grass roots level all across this country,” says Derrick Crandall, President of the American Recreation Coalition.
Other winners are:
• The Lombard Trail (Idaho) – Maintenance and Rehabilitation
The RTP is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration. It was created in 1991 and funding comes from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.
“The Congress said it’s only fair,” says Crandall. “Because a number of recreational trail interests, including: ATV’s, snowmobilers, motorcyclists and 4x4’s pay the federal gas tax on the fuel that they use in their recreational activities. It’s only fair that the money goes into the purposes that are directly benefiting recreation trails as opposed to paving roads or doing other kinds of traditional highway trust fund funded projects.”
Crandall says the RTF budget is about $84 million a year, a fraction of the $200 million collected each year from the roughly 18¢/gallon federal fuel tax from non-highway recreationists. Congress is working on a surface transportation reauthorization bill. Crandall is optimistic the Recreational Trails Program will continue to receive funding.
“While they (Senate and the House) may not agree on lots of things,” he says “They do seem to be in complete agreement on that (RTP funding).”
(Billings, MT – YPR) – A leading member of the Congressional conference committee working on a transportation reauthorization bill doubts the panel will craft a full reauthorization bill by the June 30th deadline.
“Not this time,” says Senator Max Baucus (D-MT). “I don’t think there’s enough time in Congress. Believe it or not there’s not that many legislative days before Congress adjourns in October. But we’ve set it up so we have more than enough time next year to do a full reauthorization as a full 5 year bill.”
The current legislation expired in 2009.
Baucus (D-MT) chairs the Senate Finance Committee and the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He’s a ranking member of the conference committee tasked with finding common ground on a transportation bill before the current extension runs out at the end of June.
“I think everyone realizes that we’ve got to pass a highway bill and we’ll get it done,” says Baucus.
Baucus invited ambassadors from 5 foreign countries to visit several Montana communities this week to talk about trade opportunities.
He says the transportation conference committee is still working on issues, like the Keystone X-L pipeline. Some members of Congress want this and other projects inserted into the transportation bill. The original Keystone X-L project sought to build a 1,179 mile pipeline from the Tar Sand Fields in Alberta, Canada to refineries along the U-S Gulf Coast.
“Having said that, the main point is that we are close to figuring out how to pay for the highway bill so we can extend it until next September,” Baucus says. “Hopefully for a little bit longer than that but at least to next September.” (September 2013)
Baucus says Congress knows businessmen, highway contractors and states are looking for more certainty when it comes to transportation funding.
(Washington, D.C.) Striking a decidedly feel-good tone on transportation legislation Wednesday, Democrats' chief negotiator painted herself optimistic about the chances of a House - Senate agreement before July 4th.
"I'm feeling good," Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Boxer praised talks with Republicans--and even the Republicans themselves--for steady progress. She's leading final House-Senate conference negotiations over surface transportation legislation that expires June 30th.
"I welcome a change of heart on behalf of Republicans that I feel we have now," Boxer said. She was referring to the basics of a 2-year, $109 billion Senate bill that passed with 74 bipartisan votes in March.
Boxer said both she and chief GOP negotiator Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) agree on the desirability of a bill of even longer duration than the Senate bill. But therein lies the difficulty.While Boxer says that 80% of her EPW bill is already agreed to, that bill does not include some of the most contentious issues.
"I don't have any sicking points to share with you today," Boxer said. Even if the senator isn't sharing, that doesn't mean that sticking points aren't present.
How to pay for spending in the bill is a key issue with House conservatives, and one that aides say is not yet solved. So are the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, a GOP demand to roll back EPA coal ash regulations, spending on bike lanes, parks and other so-called transportation "enhancements," and other issues.
Boxer said she spoke to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) by phone Tuesday about the conference and that she was encouraged by the chat. Boehner released a statement saying he was “hopeful that the negotiators can complete work on a conference agreement that includes Keystone and other energy measures to address high gas prices and create jobs."
The statement went on to say Boehner expects "meaningful infrastructure reforms that ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent effectively and efficiently on roads and bridges across this country.”
"I there's a lot more than three or four or two hard issues," Boxer said. Last week House Republicans voted to demand the conference return and approve the Keystone pipeline. Boxer dismissed the importance of the vote as routine but added that discussions had begun on contentious areas like Keystone.
Transit backers have given up on a comprehensive highway bill this go-around, hoping instead that whatever passes Congress this year lays the table for 2013. And, they say, whatever comes in 2013 must put public transportation on equal footing with roads.
That was the message today on a conference call given by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which released a report predicting that volatility in gas prices would spur an additional 290 million passenger trips on public transportation this year.
APTA says transit systems nationwide are groaning under the weight of additional passengers and less funding. "More than 80% of our members have had to either raise fares, cut service, or do both as a way to manage their economic challenges," Michael Melaniphy, APTA's president, said. "At the same time, we had our second-highest ridership since 1957 last year."
Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and a co-chair of the infrastructure group Building America's Future (which co-sponsored the report), was asked about the likelihood of transportation funding reform in the current political climate.
"I don't think we're going to get a five or a six-year bill. I think we'll get something that will carry us into 2013, and I think the best that we can hope for at this point is to do no harm," Rendell said. "But in 2013, it seems to me that Congress and the administration have to come to grips with the problems facing not only our transportation infrastructure, but our entire infrastructure."
Which, he said, "is in desperate shape," adding that he's hoping for "a ten year, long-term infrastructure revitalization program."
Rendell said he had been “horrified by the original proposal floated by the House” that would have stopped gas-tax revenues from being used to fund transit systems. Republicans had said instead that transit funding should come out of a general fund. But that provision was not included in the extension passed in March, which kept things more or less status quo.
Curtis Stitt, the president of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, offered a cautionary tale about general revenue funding -- which, he said, is how public transit is funded in Ohio. "Ten years ago," he said, "the entire state got -- for about 42 transit agencies in the state -- we got about $43 million." In the aftermath of the financial crisis, he said, "this year we're getting $7 million."
APTA officials urged Congress to look at the transportation system holistically -- because that's how Americans see it. Gary Thomas, who runs Dallas' transit system and is also APTA's chairman, said "they view our transportation network as one system. Which is why both public transportation and the road network should continue to receive funding from the highway trust fund."
Congress member Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chair of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, & Hazardous Materials, predicts President Barack Obama will sign a transportation bill -- with a provision to build the Keystone Pipeline included -- in September or October.
"Americans support the Keystone Pipeline, 80:20" Shuster told a gathering organized by the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. (A march Gallup poll actually put that support at 57:29, still a big majority.)
The pipeline has been vehemently opposed by environmentalists, who say construction of the pipeline would mean "game over" for the environment. And President Obama has said in the past that he would oppose any transportation bill that included funding for the pipeline.
But Shuster predicted presidential politics would force the President's hand come the fall -- though he acknowledged that for most Americans, transportation wasn't even in their top five issues.
Shuster also pointed the finger at "Leadership and Ways and Means," who he said pushed the idea of removing transit from the transportation bill, an effort that died after "every Republican in an urban or suburban district screamed bloody murder."
Shuster also said he thought Congess would achieve a so-called "grand bargain" avoiding steep across-the-board cuts in spending, either late this year if President Obama is re-elected, or after January if Mitt Romney wins the presidency.
Shuster also took a big swipe at California's high speed rail program, calling it "extortion," and said the only place America should build "high-er speed rail" was in the Northeast Corridor, where, he said, one in five Americans live.
For Senator Max Baucus, the transportation bill's benefits to his home state boil down to this: jobs.
The bipartisan conference committee charged with finding a federal transportation bill compromise between the Senate and the House versions held its first official meeting yesterday.
“Construction season has started,” Baucus says. “14,000 Montana jobs and 1.6 million jobs across America depend on this highway bill.”
He says the Senate reauthorization bill doesn’t add to the federal deficit, keeps the Highway Trust Fund Solvent, and institutes reforms.
Baucus also chairs the Senate Environment and Public Work’s (EPW) Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee.
Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is the ranking Republican on EPW. He says as one of the most conservative members of Congress he’s a supporter of investing in infrastructure.
“On issues like national security and infrastructure I’m a big spender,” he says. “That’s what I think we’re supposed to be doing here.”
Inhofe says simply passing extensions of the current legislation throws away money that would otherwise pay for infrastructure projects.
The Republican controlled U-S House passed the most recent extension. One of the sticking points has been over the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline project that would transport oil from Canada’s tar sand fields to refineries along the U-S Gulf coast. It would also transport oil from the Bakken Oil fields in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota.
Senator John Hoven, R-ND, says support for the Keystone XL has been bipartisan. He adds without the pipeline, oil producers are relying instead on 500 semis a day to transport Bakken crude.
“And we want to send 100,000 barrels of oil to market,” he says. He says those 500 trucks a day are destroying roads, “and creating a real safety issue for our people.”
“My hope is the House Republicans will not hold the entire country’s transportation infrastructure hostage over these extraneous provisions,” Waxman says. “Let’s not jeopardize this opportunity to create jobs with ill conceived, anti-environmental amendments.”
There are 47 members on the bipartisan Surface Transportation Conference Committee. Senator Barbara Boxer, D-CA, is the chair. U-S Representative John Mica, R-FL, is the vice chair.
The current extension expires June 30, 2012.
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.
Now it can be known -- here's who will be hammering out the details of a Transportation Bill with the House -- should any hammering be possible -- with experts from Ray LaHood on down opening doubting there will be a transportation bill this year. The House has yet to name any conferees.
Barbara Boxer (CA)
Max Baucus (MT)
Jay Rockefeller (WV)
Tim Johnson (IL)
Chuck Schumer (NY)
Bill Nelson (FL)
Bob Menendez (NJ)
Dick Durbin (IL)
James Inhofe (OK)
David Vitter (LA)
Richard Shelby (AL)
Orrin Hatch (UT)
Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX)
John Hoeven (ND)
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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This just in: House Republicans introduced a three-month extension to avoid a shutdown of transportation programs after March 31.
"In order to ensure continuity of current surface transportation programs while the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and House Republicans continue to work toward a responsible transportation bill that provides long-term certainty, reduces the size of government, eliminates earmarks, and is fully paid for, Chairman Mica, Chairman Duncan and Chairman Camp introduced a three-month extension of transportation programs today. This legislation, the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012 (H.R. 4239), will extend current programs through June 30, 2012."