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Struggle to pass new federal highway bill changing by the hour

House abandons five-year bill

The struggle to pass a new federal highway funding bill is taking new twists and turns literally by the hour.

Today the American Road & Transportation Builders Association reported that the five-year bill being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives will be scrapped in favor of an 18-month bill that would authorize the programs only for the remainder of FY 2012 and all of FY 2013.

The measure would reportedly retain the current structure of the Highway Trust Fund, including continued use of federal motor fuels tax revenue to support mass transit.

ARTBA said the new House bill would include a five-percent cut to the FY 2012 levels of highway and public transportation investment.  This means the federal highway investment would drop from the $39.1 billion level already set for FY 2012 to $37.1 billion.

"As a reminder, highway funding was $41.1 billion in FY 2010 and FY 2011.  Under the proposal released today, highway investment would not only be $4 billion less than it was five months ago, but would revert to pre-FY 2007 levels," ARTBA said.

While details about the proposal are still forthcoming, ARTBA said the move to a shorter, less expensive bill is clearly an attempt to gain support from conservative House Republicans.

The initial House bill, which preserved and slightly grew FY 2012 investment levels, was having difficulty winning support from conservatives because it didn’t cut spending enough.  The package was also opposed by GOP members in transit-dependent states for the proposed elimination of fuel tax support for mass transit.  

The 18-month measure will reportedly continue to be linked with legislation passed by the House last week to expand opportunities for domestic energy production.

An alert issued late Thursday by the American Highway Users Alliance was even more pessimistic.

"Action on the House bill has been suspended indefinitely so we are urging our members to focus their attention to the Senate. Now is the time to urge your employees and members to join you and take action, contacting Senators in support of the bipartisan Senate transportation bill, MAP-21."

AHUA said the two-year, $109 billion Senate bill "makes notable reforms, including increasing state flexibility, measuring performance, consolidating small programs, streamlining environmental reviews, eliminating earmarks, eliminating enhancement mandates, and sharply increasing the funding for 'hard' safety investments."

But the Senate bill, too, is tied up in political wrangling, stalled by the attempts of some Senators to attach unrelated amendments, which has made it impossible to get the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to the floor for final action.

Both houses will resume work on their bills when lawmakers return to Washington next week.

The last multi-year transportation funding bill expired in September 2009 and Congress has prevented transportation programs from shutting down only by agreeing to a series of short-term funding extensions.  The current extension expires March 31.

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