Senate ready to pass highway programs overhaul

Tuesday - 3/13/2012, 7:19pm EDT

By JOAN LOWY
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - In a rare display of deal-making between Republicans and Democrats in a bitterly partisan election year, the Senate was poised to pass an overhaul of highway and transit programs that would give states more flexibility in how they spend federal money and would step up the pace of road construction by shortening environmental reviews.

Even the measure's sponsors _ California Democrat Barbara Boxer and Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe _ come from opposite political poles. A vote on the bill is set for Wednesday.

"We are hopeful this will become a template for all of us in the Senate and the House to find the sweet spot where we can work together," Boxer said Tuesday during floor debate on the measure. She said the Senate's bipartisan success should be a lesson for House Republican leaders, whose efforts to pass their own bill without concessions to Democrats have fallen apart.

Senate marched through more than a dozen amendments, approving proposals to deny federal aid to privatized highways and to loosen safety regulation of agricultural trucks. A series of energy-related proposals were batted aside.

The bill would spend $109 billion over less than two years. That's far below the level of spending that two congressional commissions have said will be needed if the U.S. is to maintain its aging roads and bridges and bus and train systems and expand the national transportation network to meet population growth between now and 2050. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has described the nation's roads as "one big pothole."

Senate Democrats have been pitching the measure as a jobs bill, predicting it would preserve or create nearly 3 million jobs. But economists say it's unlikely the bill would create any more jobs than would be created by the same amount of money spent on something else.

The bill would increase the flow of highway aid to states by adjusting current spending levels to take into account inflation over the past several years. States would have greater discretion over how to spend the money, but the bill also would create a new set of performance and project eligibility requirements aimed at preventing waste and making sure national goals are met.

A credit assistance program that helps leverage private investment for transportation projects of national and regional significance would be increased tenfold to $1 billion. In the past, the program has been able to generate as much as $30 in private capital for every $1 in aid, Boxer has said.

The measure also would reduce the number of federal transportation programs by roughly two-thirds in an effort to eliminate duplication. Bicycle, pedestrian, safe routes to schools and rails-to-trails programs _ which were targeted by Republicans _ were preserved by moving them into a larger congestion mitigation program where they would have to compete with other programs for money.

Safety measures in the bill would toughen regulation of the long-distance and tour bus industries, including setting deadlines for government requirements that buses have seat belts, improved roof strength, anti-ejection window glazing and rollover crash avoidance systems. The bus industry transports about 750 million passengers a year, roughly the same as the domestic airline industry.

But amendments added to the bill that provide sweeping exemptions from federal commercial drivers' licenses, vehicle inspection and other safety requirements for agricultural trucks operating with 150 miles of their farm were strongly criticized by safety advocates.

"Underage, inexperienced or unfit drivers are no safer or better prepared to drive a large vehicle that would otherwise be classified as a commercial motor vehicle simply because it is used in a farm operation," Joan Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a statement.

The amendments by Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had broad industry support.

One thing the bill doesn't do is resolve how to keep the Federal Highway Trust Fund solvent beyond next year. The fund pays for highway and transit programs, but revenues have declined while spending has remained the same. The largest source of money for the fund is federal fuel taxes: 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel. Revenue from those taxes has been lower since the economic downturn in 2008 and because the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks is increasing.

The bill would pay for highway programs through a combination of fuel taxes, cuts to other federal programs and tax changes, but also would drain the trust fund. Some senators have been critical of the provisions that are supposed to pay for transportation programs since they would raise about $10 billion over 10 years, but spend it in the first two years.