April 28, 2009 / 5:58 PM / 10 years ago

ANALYSIS-Clock ticking on US transportation bill

(This report is part of a Reuters series on infrastructure)

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON, April 27 (Reuters) - Legislators and the U.S. transportation industry are up against a Sept. 30 deadline to pass a massive funding law for the country’s roads, bridges and public transit.

If they fail, the result would be a sharp cut in money available for transportation infrastructure projects.

“I am hopeful,” Pete Nonis, congressional relations manager for the American Automobile Association told Reuters. “It’s going to be a tough lift.”

Every five years or so, Congress passes a law that dictates how all surface transportation projects in the country will be planned, funded and completed.

The current law, frequently called the highway bill, expires on Sept. 30. It was approved in July 2005, nearly two years after the previous law expired in September 2003. Then-President George W. Bush signed extensions of the expired law 12 times to keep the country’s transportation programs on track.

“If we go past the Sept. 30 deadline there will be a serious shortfall in revenues, resulting in a 50 percent cut in what we can send out to the states,” said James Berard, a spokesman for the House of Representatives Transportation Committee. “That’s the hammer hanging over our heads.”

The committee’s chairman, Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar, expects the committee to pass the bill in May so the full House can debate and vote on it in June, Berard said.

“We are determined— at least our goal is — to get this one done within the current authorization, without having to go to an extension,” Berard said.

David Parkhurst, staff director and counsel of the National Governors Association’s economic and commerce committee, is guardedly optimistic that this go-around will follow a “quicker process” than the last time.

“It just stalls planning and delays the ability of state and local transportation officials to make long-term plans,” he said, referring to extensions. “If we don’t have the rules of the road in place, so to speak, it’s going to be challenging to state and local governments.”

OBSTACLES LOOM

Politics and process, though, could arrest Oberstar’s ambition. The Senate must also pass a version of the bill, and then the two bodies will forge a compromise bill for President Barack Obama to sign into law.

On the Senate side, legislation must first wend its way through two large committees, Environment and Public Works and Finance.

Obama will also want to inject his objectives — likely to include a national infrastructure bank — into the legislation and, on top of that, Congress usually takes a month-long recess in August.

Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Public Works Committee, has pledged to make the drafting process open and bipartisan. She has researched the bill for nearly two years, an aide said, and staff members and legislators are meeting frequently on it.

Still, the aide did not want to hazard projecting when the committee will pass the bill and emphasized there has been no date set for a Senate vote.

After enduring a recession for more than a year, Americans may resist a program with a large price tag, especially so soon after the $787 billion stimulus plan boosted funding for surface transportation projects.

The highway bill expiring at the end of summer has a price tag of $286.4 billion.

Already, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is pressing for the next bill to be $545 billion. AAA’s Nonis said bills being floated in the House range between $100 billion and $500 billion.

Debates about the nature of the bill could also slow its passage. In 2005, the highway bill passed with some $200 million for Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” that inspired outrage across the country and legislators are under pressure to keep special funding favors out of legislation.

Also, some want the bill to continue to tilt toward highways, while others would like it expanded to include the agenda launched by Obama in the recent economic stimulus plan, namely improved public transportation and high-speed rail.

For more on infrastructure, please visit: here Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Dan Grebler

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