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Summer 2011 | Vol. 13 | No. 2
Highway Reauthorization Moving Forward But Outlook Murky
The reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) is moving forward in Congress, but the outlook for final action remains gloomy and uncertain. The legislation expired in 2009 and has since been extended seven times, making it difficult for state highway safety agencies to undertake any sort of long-rang planning. Current authority for SAFETEA -LU, including authority for the Highway Trust Fund, expires September 30.
On July 29, the Senate Commerce Committee released its portion of the reauthorization bill covering highway and vehicle safety. The Senate bill would cover two years—FY 2012 and 2013—and would fund programs at the FY 2011 level plus an inflation adjuster. The language is very similar to what was requested by the Obama administration, with a few notable differences. Overall grant funding to states would be reduced by nearly 7 percent. This is due to the elimination of the Section 406 (primary seat belt incentive grant) and the use of some of the remaining funds for NHT SA data and vehicle programs.
Prior to the bill’s release, a hearing was held on July 27. Key safety groups were given an opportunity to react to a draft proposal. GHSA Chairman Vernon Betkey testified along with NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, former Administrator Nicole Nason and representatives from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the General Accountability Office and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Betkey testified that GHSA supported much of the Committee’s approach and offered technical suggestions for the bill.
The Senate is expected to take up a reauthorization bill when it returns from its August recess. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has indicated the highway bill is a priority for Democrats as it functions largely as a jobs bill. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (the lead Senate committee on reauthorization and the one with jurisdiction over highway programs), the Senate Banking Committee (which has jurisdiction over transit programs) and the Senate Finance Committee (which has jurisdiction over funding) have yet to introduce legislative language but are expected to do so in early September.
On the House side, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (the lead reauthorization committee) has introduced an outline of a bill but no legislative language. Unlike the Senate bill, the House bill would reduce funding by 35% (except for highway and motor carrier safety programs) and would authorize programs over a six-year period. The Committee is expected to introduce legislative language in early September.
In a speech on August 11, the President urged Congress to swiftly enact the reauthorization since such legislation would help to create badly needed jobs. However, there are major obstacles to that effort. The House and Senate will have difficulty conferencing bills that take such drastically different approaches to funding and length of reauthorization period, among other things.
Other differences over the role of the federal government in surface transportation may lead to a protracted fight over reauthorization, as was the case with the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization.
In the House, some lawmakers are rumored to be considering proposals to reduce or repeal the federal gas tax and leave surface transportation to the states. On the Senate side, legislation to devolve the federal surface transportation program back to states has twelve cosponsors. In both cases, members argue that transportation should be a state – not federal – responsibility and that a smaller federal transportation program will mean a smaller federal government.
If surface transportation programs and the Highway Trust Fund that supports those programs are not renewed by the end of September, Congress may do short-term extensions. However, the extensions (if done at all) are likely to involve funding reductions. In short, while progress is being made on reauthorization, a number of significant roadblocks and relatively little time remain.