Senate passes highway, transit programs overhaul

March 14, 2012 - 3:55 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted Wednesday to overhaul transportation programs and keep aid flowing to thousands of construction projects while strengthening highway and auto safety.

The 74-22 vote stepped up pressure for quick action by House because the government's power to collect about $110 million a day in federal gasoline and diesel taxes, the main source of revenue for highway and transit programs, is set to expire March 31.

If a final bill isn't on the president's desk by then, Congress would have to approve a temporary extension to avoid a shutdown of the programs, including the furlough of Federal Highway Administration employees and the layoff of construction workers.

The White House praised senators for trying to address these critical national needs and expressed hope the House "will move swiftly" and follow suit. Efforts by House Republican leaders to pass their own, five-year bill without concessions to Democrats have fallen apart in recent weeks. The House returns next week from a weeklong recess.

The Senate's measure would spend $109 billion over about two years. It would increase the amount of money available for states by raising current spending levels to take into account inflation over the past several years. That's still far short of the dollars that two congressional commissions have said are needed to maintain aging highways, bridges and rail systems while expanding the nation's transportation network to accommodate population growth between now and 2050.

The measure would reduce the number of federal transportation programs by roughly two-thirds in an effort to eliminate duplication. Senators preserved bicycle, pedestrian, safe routes to schools and rails-to-trails programs, targeted for elimination by Republicans, under a compromise that means they would have to compete with other programs for money.

For transit commuters, the bill would extend, back to Jan. 1, a tax break that allows the deduction of up to $240 a month tax-free from their paychecks for expenses incurred traveling to work. That had expired at the end of 2011.

On the safety front, the bill would require stricter federal oversight of the long-distance and tour bus industries through deadlines for buses to have seat belts, stronger roofs, anti-ejection windows and rollover crash avoidance systems. The bus industry carries about 750 million passengers a year, roughly the same as the domestic airline industry.

Other safety provisions include requiring that automakers provide rear seat-belt reminder systems to get children and other backseat passengers to buckle up, and testing child safety seats in frontal and side impact crashes.

The bill would let Washington reward states with extra safety money if they require graduated licenses for teenage drivers, permit police to pull over and ticket drivers for seat-belt and booster-seat violations, and mandate that convicted drunken drivers use ignition-lock devices.

Safety advocates criticized the broad exemptions from federal commercial driver's licensing, vehicle inspection and other safety requirements for agricultural trucks operating with 150 miles of their farms. Farm lobbies said the rules hinder farmers' ability to get their products to market.

The measure includes a provision similar to an Obama administration proposal that would, for the first time, grant the Federal Transit Administration the authority to set and enforce safety standards for local transit agencies. A 1964 law has barred the federal government from doing just that.

States would have greater discretion over how to spend federal aid. But the bill would mean new requirements aimed at preventing waste and ensuring that national goals are met.

A credit assistance program championed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that helps leverage private investment for transportation projects of national and regional significance would grow by tenfold to $1 billion. In the past, the program has generated as much as $30 in private capital for every $1 in aid.

The measure will preserve or create 2.8 million jobs, the bill's sponsors said. But economists say the bill doesn't create more jobs than if the same money was spent on something else.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., co-author of the measure, said the bill ""probably will go down as one of the most significant pieces of legislation this year."

One thing the bill would not do is resolve how to keep the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent beyond next year.

The largest sources of money for the fund, which pays for highway and transit programs, are federal fuel taxes: 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel. Revenue from those taxes has declined since the economic downturn in 2008 and because the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks is increasing.

The bill would pay for highway programs through a combination of fuel taxes, cuts to other federal programs and tax changes, but also would drain the trust fund. Some senators have criticized provisions that are supposed to pay for transportation programs since they would raise about $10 billion over 10 years, but spend it in the first two years.

Pointing to the large bipartisan vote in favor of the bill, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., urged House Republicans to consider passing the Senate measure as it is "to avert any crisis."

"Why would they want to reinvent the wheel?" Boxer asked.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House plan is to "take up something that looks like" the Senate bill "unless the House coalesces around a better alternative, which we are actively pursuing."

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