House Extends Highway Funding, Prepares for Senate Talks

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
Ray LaHood, U.S. transportation secretary. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

As the U.S. House and Senate prepared to negotiate a spending accord for highways, ports and railroads, the nation’s top transportation official said a multiyear bill is doomed in this presidential election year.

“I wish we could say we could get a transportation bill, but I know we won’t,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who served in Congress for 14 years, said at an event in Washington yesterday, hours before the House voted 293-127 to extend current spending through Sept. 30. “There won’t be a bill before the election.”

LaHood’s remarks reflect that the procedural victory in the Republican-controlled House left both parties no closer to an agreement less than seven months before the November vote. House Speaker John Boehner, who said yesterday he lacked the votes to get a five-year bill through the chamber, heads into talks with leaders of the Democrat-controlled Senate who pushed through a two-year, $109 billion plan with bipartisan support.

House Republicans rebuffed calls from Democrats to vote on the Senate plan.

The bill passed yesterday extended current highway policies and spending levels while adding language that would force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and throw regulation of coal ash back to the states, initiatives Democrats oppose. Both sides said they were willing to support the House measure to advance the legislation to a conference committee.

Congress last month passed an extension of transportation programs through June 30, the ninth short-term bill since the last multiyear policy legislation expired in 2009. As recently as March 29, Boehner told reporters that leaders were putting “the finishing touches” on revisions to the five-year plan that “would move quickly” when lawmakers returned to Washington this week following a two-week recess.

‘Move the Process’

“This bill contains no tax increases, earmarks, or new federal government programs, which may disappoint Democrats, but this legislation will help move the process forward,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, said yesterday. Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the panel’s senior Democrat, urged House leaders to appoint conferees immediately.

Boehner said yesterday he went to his so-called Plan B, extending current highway programs, because of a lack of support among Republicans for the five-year authorization of road, bridge and transit initiatives. States, municipalities and construction groups have said a five-year bill would allow long-term budgeting and planning for projects.

Referring to a measure drafted by Mica’s committee, Boehner of Ohio told reporters that “if I had my druthers H.R. 7 would have been on the floor six weeks ago, but there weren’t 218 votes.”

Keystone Opposition

Lawmakers trying to negotiate a highway bill with less money and no earmarks may agree on shortening the time it takes for government to complete environmental reviews and reduce specialized programs, said Jeff Shoaf, senior executive director of government and public affairs at the Associated General Contractors of America, a construction trade group in Arlington, Virginia.

“Both the House and the Senate are trying to do more with the funding they do have,” Shoaf said. “All those provisions add up to doing more with less.”

The White House said in a statement that it opposes the House bill for its Keystone language, which “circumvents a longstanding and proven process for determining whether crossborder pipelines are in the national interest.”

‘Outrageous Giveaway’

The coal-ash provision would stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the substance that results from coal production.

Representative David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican, called coal ash a vital component in producing the concrete that makes transportation projects affordable. Rahall supported the amendment and predicted the Senate may go along.

A 2008 spill of more than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry in Kingston, Tennessee, prompted the EPA to propose regulating the byproducts of burning coal as hazardous material.

The coal-ash provision is “really an outrageous giveaway to the utilities that treat a toxic waste with the same environmental requirements that we treat household garbage,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “We can’t believe there’s enough support in the Senate for this kind of anti-environmental measure.”

The bills are H.R. 7 and H.R. 4348.

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