In return, Democrats gave up on $1.4 billion for conservation and agreed to allow states more leeway in how they use money that was once mandated for landscaping, bike improvements and pedestrian walkways.
“I am so glad that House Republicans met Democrats halfway, as Senate Republicans did months ago,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the bill’s chief architect and advocate. “The bill is funded at current levels, and it will protect and create 3 million jobs.”
The conference committee bill, which would maintain spending at the current level of about $54 billion a year, is set to come up for a ratification vote in both chambers this week.
“This is the jobs bill for the 112th Congress,” said House transportation committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.). “This agreement will help strengthen our nation’s construction industry and provide stability to highway, bridge and infrastructure projects across the country.”
The deal was struck in the shadow of a June 30 deadline, when federal highway funding was due to expire. It came after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid
(D-Nev.) ordered conference committee members back to the table after talks appeared to falter last week.
While the details will take several days to emerge, the bill would streamline a federal system that expanded its network of agencies and programs in a patchwork fashion to meet immediate needs, producing a cumbersome bureaucracy that has smothered state transportation projects.
“We speed up project delivery, cut red tape and do it without jeopardizing environmental laws,” Boxer said. “For the first time, we send half of the funds for bike paths and pedestrian walkways directly to local entities, and we protect those funds while giving states more flexibility on their share.”
The bill also would provide greater incentives for corporations to partner with government to invest in major infrastructure improvements.
The agreement is a notable achievement for lawmakers, who have garnered public disdain for their inability to agree on much. But even long before partisan politics came to infuse every issue, Congress had proved itself unable to resolve the nation’s transportation needs.
It last approved a long-term plan in 2005 and has extended funding at that level nine times since the measure expired almost three years ago. Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate during the first several extensions.
No one pretends that the new bill would provide a sound long-term footing for the national transportation system. It would expire in 2014, and it would draw on several other pools of money to supplement the longtime source of federal transportation funding, the Highway Trust Fund.