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Time running out on transportation funding

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With funding for the nation’s transportation system set to run out at the end of the month and their work done, Senate leaders appealed to House Republicans to abandon their own proposal and embrace the Senate’s plan.

The odds that the House would do that or pass its own bill seemed slim, and a better bet was that Congress instead will approve the ninth temporary funding extension since the last long-term transportation bill expired more than two years ago.

In a letter addressed to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), two Senate committee chairman asked the House to adopt a $109 billion two-year bill that the Senate approved by a 74-22 vote on Wednesday.

“There is an urgent need to get this bill to the President’s desk, because nearly three million jobs are at stake if Congress does not act by March 31st, when the current surface transportation extension expires,” wrote Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Development.

The five-year transportation bill introduced in the House last month stalled after encountering bipartisan opposition from House members. After a failed attempted to broker an arrangement to move it forward last week, Boehner acknowledged that “the current plan is to see what the Senate can produce and to bring their bill up.”

But with House Republicans arguing over the provisions of their own bill, agreement on a bipartisan bill produced under the leadership of Senate Democrats appeared doubtful.

Boxer and Johnson included with their letter a chart that reflected the number of existing jobs and prospective jobs that would be lost unless a new transportation bill is approved. They said 55,000 jobs were in jeopardy in Boehner’s home state and 40,000 jobs were in play in Cantor’s state.

Nationwide, they said, the Senate bill would sustain 1.9 million jobs and create about 1 million new jobs.

“The surface transportation authorization bill is by far the biggest jobs legislation the Congress will take up this year,” their letter said.

Though there are sharp partisan differences on some transportation issues, the primary reason Congress has failed to approve a new long-term transportation bill is a failure to agree on how to fund it. The Highway Trust Fund, which has used federal gas tax revenue to pay for transportation since the Eisenhower era, no longer provides sufficient revenue.

Until a better funding mechanism can be established, House Republicans have proposed to meet the need primarily by expanding offshore drilling. The Senate bill diverts money from a largely dormant trust fund and several other sources that some critics have denounced as gimmicks.

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