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Posted at 01:50 PM ET, 06/29/2012

Congress passes two-year transportation bill


(Win McNamee - GETTY IMAGES)
On the eve of the Fourth of July travel rush, Congress agreed Friday to a two-year plan to fund the nation’s transportation projects, as part of a broader package that included resolution of other long-simmering issues.

The package passed the House 373 to 52 and later cleared the Senate 74 to 19, with one member voting present. Under the agreement, federal transportation funding will continue at roughly $54 billion a year, averting a crisis for the nation’s highway construction projects that could have occurred if Congress not agreed on the money before the expiration of a short-term measure Saturday night.

The agreement does not include a provision launching construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Republicans had sought. But it also omits a $1.4 billion for conservation that Democrats favored, and dropped restrictions on how states use money once mandated for aesthetic transportation improvements.

The measure marks the first time since 2005 that Congress has agreed to a long-term transportation bill.

“I think everybody realized that tomorrow [Saturday], if we hadn’t acted, thousands of transportation projects across the nation would come to a halt and the potential for millions of people being laid off as opposed to the opposite,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Transportation Committee.

After weeks of debate, the House and Senate quickly passed a package that approved new federal transportation dollars and and agreement to freeze federally subsidized student loan rates at 3.4 percent, rather than allowing them to rise Saturday night to 6.8 percent — a cost increase that would have affected more than 7 million students. The package is now headed to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

“This is a bill that everyone can be proud of — whether they’re Republican or Democrat,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who led negotiations with Mica over the final package.

Throughout the negotiations, Boxer, Mica and other supporters that the transportation dollars would ultimately help save more than 2 million jobs — making the bill one of the most significant pieces of jobs legislation passed by lawmakers this year.

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