Highway Bill''s Off Ramp

Highway Bill''s Off Ramp

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Ed Hamberger didn''t hesitate when asked at a recent public event to pick a date when the long-delayed highway bill might finally get through Congress. "September 30," said the head of the Association of American Railroads, " ... 2005."

Hamberger wasn''t entirely joking.

As the calendar and political reality collide, a growing number of people in the capitol are saying what once seemed unthinkable: the massive highway reauthorization bill that many consider the lifeblood of transportation commitment in Washington and throughout the country may be set aside for the year.

"I''m pessimistic, I would say," American Highway Users Alliance Senior Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs Greg Cohen said. "We''re really running out of days this year to do it. There''s sort of a general consensus that if it doesn''t happen by June, it''s not going to happen this year. That doesn''t leave many days left to work on it."

"It''s going to get tougher and tougher the longer we wait," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Democratic spokesman Jim Berard said. "The possibility grows of it not getting done this year."

Despite pessimism, Berard''s boss, House transportation committee ranking Democrat Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and others on Capitol Hill are working to try to reach a compromise with the administration this year.

For now, federal highway programs are being funded through a third short-term extension of the TEA-21 highway bill, which was set to expire on Sept. 30, 2003. The Senate in February approved a $318 billion, six-year bill. The House followed a month later with a $284 billion bill. Both bills exceed the $256 billion President Bush allocated in next year''s budget for the highway bill.

Acting Deputy Transportation Secretary Kirk Van Tine told the National Defense Transportation Association''s conference that the administration is not giving up yet as the latest extension of the old bill nears a June 30 expiration.

"Without a long-term bill, states and localities can''t adequately plan their transportation investments," Van Tine said. "The administration will use this extension to continue to work with Congress to craft a long-term bill along the lines of the president''s proposal."

Transportation interest groups say they are still working to push Congress and the Bush administration to come to agree on a six-year bill this year. But they acknowledge that 2005 is becoming more and more realistic with each passing day.

"I don''t think you can write RIP in stone yet," said Peter Gatti, legislative director of the National Industrial Transportation League.

"We''re not writing an epitaph," American Road and Transportation Builders Association President and CEO Peter Ruane told Traffic World.

Still, the chisel for that epitaph could be at the ready, he concedes.

"I don''t think it''s time to close the curtains yet," Ruane said. "I think it''s still alive, but that could change momentarily."

Ruane and others are closely watching the congressional calendar.

Congress is due to work through June following the Memorial Day recess and have an abbreviated session in July. But sessions in August and September will be cut short by the party national conventions.

Yet, nearly two months after both the House and Senate finished passing their versions of the highway bill, congressional leaders haven''t even been able to appoint members of the conference committee to work out differences in the versions on the Hill. Congress and the White House are still at an impasse over an overall spending number for the bill. Conference appointments are also hung up over a partisan dispute in the Senate about the general makeup of conference committees for major legislation -- a debate that extends far beyond the highway bill.

Still, NITL''s Gatti believes that the political calendar will pressure lawmakers to get a bill passed. He says they will become increasingly eager to have federal checks in hand as they campaign for re-election, even if the final tally is lower than what they wanted.

"There are an awful lot of House members on both sides who want to see it passed," Gatti said. "You don''t get any bounce for it if you put it off until next year."

Waiting until next year also poses other challenges for Congress. Because next January will bring a new Congress, waiting until next year will mean essentially starting from scratch with a new bill and new political dynamics.