Transport funding: in doubt for 2004

Transport funding: in doubt for 2004

Federal lawmakers are gamely moving ahead with plans to reauthorize the nation's surface transportation funding laws, despite the unabated conventional wisdom in Washington that any action on the issue this year may be futile.

Congressional aides from both chambers expect lawmakers to consider competing versions of the legislation next month, but acknowledged that their efforts will be hampered by competing interests, election-year politics, tax and funding issues, and the overall complexity of the bill.

"It's our understanding (that Senate) floor time has been committed for action some time in February," said Jeff Squires, a Democratic aide to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Squires was one of six congressional aides participating in a Jan. 12 roundtable discussion at the 83rd annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington.

Congress extended until Feb. 29 the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century before it expired last September. The Senate may finish its version of the bill before the extension expires, but the full House is not expected to act until March 15, said Joyce Rose, a Republican aide on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"There will have to be a couple of short extensions," she said. The committee plans to begin working on the bill next month.

Debbie Hersman, a Democratic staff member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, agreed. She said Congress would not be able to get a bill through conference and signed by President Bush by Feb. 29.

One of the biggest hurdles to enactment of the bill is the expected debate on the gasoline tax. The specter of raising taxes as the fall elections draw near could scuttle prolonged debate of the measure if it is not settled quickly.

But it is an issue that will have to be discussed at some point, Rose said, because the highway trust fund will not be able to support the dramatic increases that Congress envisions without some kind of revenue increase. The House transportation committee introduced a six-year, $375 billion bill in November. The Senate version is estimated to cost about $311 billion, aides said.

"We know we won't have enough coming in for $375 billion, or even $311 billion," Rose said.

If the financing of the bill is not settled, there is little point in bringing the bill to the floor, Hersman said. "Until that happens, I don't see it moving forward," the Senate aide said.

There is enough money in the trust fund to keep programs funded at current levels if lawmakers decide to postpone comprehensive action until a new Congress is seated next year, aides said.

The bill also will find itself competing with other must-pass legislation if it is not enacted within a couple of months, dimming the prospects for passage as time passes. For starters, Congress will have to finish the fiscal 2004 appropriations process.

"Congress has a full plate, many things to deal with," said Jonathan Upchurch, a Republican aide for the House transportation committee. He cited the energy and welfare reform bills as two other major pieces of legislation that will take time and effort.

Getting a bill to the floor is difficult enough, especially in the Senate, where four committees have partial jurisdiction over portions of the law: Environment and Public Works has jurisdiction over highways; Commerce, Science and Transportation has jurisdiction over rail and transportation safety issues; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs has jurisdiction over transit issues; and Finance oversees revenue. The Senate commerce and environment committees have completed action on their provisions of the bill.

Even those Senate committees that have completed action had to pass on some issues, including support for freight rail, because they were too fractious to be settled quickly. Instead, numerous issues will have to be decided either on the Senate floor or when the Senate meets the House in conference committee.

The issue is less complicated in the House, where the transportation committee has primary jurisdiction and the Ways and Means Committee oversees tax and revenue issues. The House bill also has numerous sections to be determined later, including finances.

The enormous difference in funding levels - aside from the gasoline tax - is another stumbling block to quick passage. The Bush administration proposed a more modest $247 billion bill, compared with the $375 billion House and $311 billion Senate versions.