Highway bill showdown: Five things to know

June 29, 2012

With all that Supreme Court health-care business out of the way, Congress can now turn to other pressing matters ... like making sure that billions of dollars in highway projects across the country don't screech to a halt when funding expires Saturday. That's right, another infrastructure armageddon is looming.


Vehicles drive on I-81. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In theory, there's a deal at hand to avert chaos. Key members of the House and Senate just tentatively agreed on a new $120 billion transportation bill (pdf) that will fund the nation's roads, bridges and mass transit for the next 27 months. Both chambers are expected to take a final vote on the measure Friday. But, as always, there might be a few last hiccups. Here are five key things to know about the bill:

1) Transportation spending stays at current levels — but one-time gimmicks are making up for an ongoing shortfall in gas taxes. Most members of Congress would prefer not to cut spending on highways. That's rarely popular. Trouble is, the highway bill has typically been paid for by the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. And with fewer people driving these days, there's not enough gas tax money to pay for everything. So, instead of raising the gas tax, Congress scrounged up an extra $18.8 billion for the Highway Trust Fund.

This money mostly came from changes to pension rules (see here for a rundown) and from a fund meant to clean up leaking underground storage tanks. It's not a permanent solution. And, yes, 27 months from now, Congress will face this exact same gas-tax crisis.

2) The bill continues Congress's love affair with highways. When the Senate passed its first version of the transportation bill in March, some advocates cheered the fact that it contained measures to encourage mass transit — like money to keep cash-crunched bus and train systems operating. But most of those reforms, Tanya Snyder notes, have been stripped out of the new bill. House and Senate negotiators also cut money for biking and pedestrians. And state highway agencies will get more discretion over how to spend congestion and air quality funds.

The bill, grouses Transportation for America's James Corless, "doesn’t begin to address the needs of a changing America in the 21st century." More and more Americans are taking public transportation, but Congress isn't readjusting its focus.

3) Republicans lost their battle on the Keystone XL pipeline. Back in February, House Speaker John Boehner had a different vision for the transportation bill — one that boosted oil and gas drilling to pay for new road spending. Ultimately, though, Boehner couldn't get his bill that through the House. So, when it came time to negotiate with the Senate, Republicans instead tried to get fast-track approval for the Keystone XL pipeline. (The White House, recall, had denied permits for the pipeline in January.) In the end, though, Keystone never made it into the final bill — and neither did GOP-backed rules to weaken regulations on coal ash pollution.

4) But environmentalists aren't happy with measures to speed up transportation projects. The new transportation bill contains several measures to ensure that roads and bridges get built more quickly. For instance, there's a four-year planning deadline for projects that receive federal money (after that, the project starts losing funds). And certain projects get a pass from extensive environmental reviews — projects that get less than $5 million in federal assistance, or interchanges on already-approved highways. Deron Lovaas, a transportation expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, warns that this could have unintended consequences — a large, intrusive project that gets broken up into small $5 million chunks, for instance, could be exempt from oversight.

5) Two obscure — but important! — reforms got left out of the final bill. The original Senate transportation bill did two things that may seem minor but were actually quite significant, says Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation. For one, the bill shifted more money to fixing existing roads rather than building new ones. (Analysts have long argued that it's more cost-effective to repair the roads we already have, but state and local politicians prefer new projects that come with shiny ribbon-cuttings.) That earlier version also would've established a new coordinated policy that linked up freight and ports. But these provisions have been cut from the final bill.

In any case, the final bill has left many analysts grumbling, but the consensus seems to be that an imperfect bill is better than simply letting transportation funding dry up altogether, laying off (potentially) millions of construction workers. And both Democrats and Republicans are declaring victory on the bill. So now it's on to the votes.

P.S. The bill is so large that it also contains sections that lower student loan rates and a bill to revamp flood insurance.

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Sarah Kliff | June 29, 2012