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Highway Talks Near Deadline as Lawmakers Weigh Student-Loan Bill

U.S. House and Senate negotiators worked to finish legislation setting highway and transportation policy into next year as lawmakers weighed combining it with a measure to prevent an increase in student-loan interest rates.

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were deciding on whether to move forward, Senator Barbara Boxer told transportation lobbyists on a conference call yesterday.

“We are on the 1/2 yard line,” Boxer, a California Democrat, said in urging the lobbyists to contact congressional leaders to push for a deal that she said is 97 percent done. She declined to answer questions about specific agreements, saying negotiations weren’t complete.

The Highway Trust Fund, which enables the federal government to pay for state road, bridge and mass transit projects, may run out of money if Congress resorts, as it has nine times already, to a temporary extension of current law, which runs out June 30.

Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said today his staff has told him that negotiators may combine the transportation measure with a one-year freeze in student-loan interest rates.

A deal could come as soon as today, Kyl said today in an interview.

Deadline Looms

Unless Congress acts, student loan interest rates will double to 6.8 percent on July 1. Current funding for highway programs expires at the end of the month.

Lawmakers have no plans for a 30-day extension of the highway measure, according to a House Republican leadership aide and a Senate Democratic leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday as the talks are continuing. Lawmakers would either reach agreement on a measure lasting as long as two years, or extend the current authorization for six months, after the November elections, they said.

The two sides have always been close though close isn’t finished, said a Republican Senate leadership aide who also spoke on condition of not being named.

The House and Senate have been discussing the transportation measure since April. The Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion plan on a bipartisan 74-22 vote March 14. After efforts to pass its own long-term bill fell apart, the House passed an extension of current law April 18.

Environmental Reviews

The issues holding up a highway deal include how to speed up approval of highway projects and whether states will have the flexibility to spend money dedicated to pedestrian improvements and bicycle trails on highways and bridges instead.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest U.S. business lobbying group, supports a final measure that would cut down the average 13 years it takes to complete a road or bridge project with federal funding.

The Washington-based Chamber prefers the House approach, which sets deadlines for environmental reviews and runs agency approvals concurrently rather than consecutively, said Janet Kavinoky, the group’s executive director for transportation and infrastructure.

Rebuilding the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis after its August 2007 collapse in just over a year showed it was possible to get big projects done in less time, Kavinoky said.

“If we can get that redone in that amount of time, and it was a major bridge, we can apply some of the lessons learned to the program as a whole,” Kavinoky said.

Harmful Impacts

Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said while negotiations on streamlining environmental reviews has been “heated and talked about repeatedly,” it’s unfair to blame all of the delays on complying with the National Environmental Policy Act, which has helped to reduce harmful social, economic and environmental impact of highway projects for 42 years. Many of the projects are drawn out because of their expense and lack of funding, he said.

The Minneapolis bridge was completed so quickly, he said, because funding was available, there was a strong public support and agencies worked together.

“The bridge is evidence that current law can work, as long as agencies and policymakers get on the same page early on,” Lovaas said in an interview.

Bike Paths

Congressional negotiators also were trying to resolve differences over a federal program that guarantees a small portion of U.S. gasoline-tax revenues are spent on non-highway projects, like bike paths or developing safe walking routes.

States should be able to decide how much money, if any, to take away from roads and bridges, said Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, a group of motorists and trucking firms that advocates on transportation policy.

“It shouldn’t be a mandate,” Cohen said. “This is sort of red meat to conservatives as a sign that the program has lost its way.”

Transportation for America, a coalition of consumer and planning groups, released a study June 21 showing more than 50,000 pedestrians were killed between 2001 and 2010. The policies backed by the so-called enhancement program save lives, the group said.

Multiple Users

The House language, emphasizing roads and bridges to the exclusion of other needs, takes transportation policy back to the 1950s, said David Goldberg, the Washington-based group’s communications director.

“There are multiple users of roadways in developed areas,” Goldberg said. “It’s not just cars. You have to consider the needs of everybody.”

The Highway Trust Fund will run out of money sometime in the next 15 months without a congressional transportation deal, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The fund, which works as a kind of credit card to reimburse states for construction they’re undertaking, is paid for through taxes on gasoline, diesel, new-truck purchases and truck tires.

Highway-bill negotiators are close to a compromise on the bill’s coal-ash regulation language, Bloomberg BNA reported.

Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, is orchestrating a coal-ash compromise with industry approval, said Lisa Evans, an attorney at environmental advocacy group Earthjustice.

The compromise language would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coal ash, a residue from coal-fired power plants, as a hazardous waste, Evans said.

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