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Another Extension?

MAR 22, 2010 7:07pm ET
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WASHINGTON — Another extension of federal transportation programs beyond the end of this year is highly possible, a congressional aide and transportation industry sources said at a conference here yesterday.

Some have suggested that Congress, during a lame-duck session between the November elections and the January start of the new session, could approve a multi-year bill reauthorizing federal transportation programs, Jim Kolb, staff director for the House Transportation Committee said on a panel at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

However, “you have to be pretty far along ... in terms of being able to wrap up a bill and getting it to the president’s desk” during a lame-duck session, Kolb added. “Lame ducks are very scripted events,” he said, explaining that he wants people to keep their expectations realistic.

Committee spokesman Jim Berard added: “If something doesn’t happen [before the end of the session], we have to start all over again next year with a new bill.”

It would take aggressive action on the part of Congress and the White House in order to get a new multi-year bill passed into law by the time new lawmakers take office next year, agreed Neil Gray, director of ­government affairs for IBTTA. “There would have to be very tight negotiation” between House committees and the White House, he said.

So far, movement on a multi-year bill has been very slow. House Transportation Committee chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., drafted a massive piece of legislation that would authorize and create federal transportation programs, including several bond-related provisions. The highway and transit subcommittee approved it last year, but the full committee has not voted on it and the House Ways and Means Committee has not created a critical revenue source for the bill yet.

The Obama administration is working on a set of “principles” or recommendations for a new multi-year bill and had asked last year for an 18-month extension of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users through March 2011. Legislation has not been introduced in the Senate.

Currently, states are receiving federal aid for transportation projects thanks to a stopgap measure that expires at the end of this calendar year. The last multi-year law to authorize SAFETEA-LU expired Sept. 30.

Kolb said that Oberstar does not want another extension, but that “reality is reality.” Gray concurred, noting that even a bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007 failed to create sufficient momentum for a surface transportation bill.

Meanwhile, state-level transportation officials praised Build America Bonds and stressed the need for more federal funding to support a popular federal credit option, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program.

The North Carolina legislature approved $99 million annual appropriations to fund four transportation projects. Without TIFIA, projects such as the Triangle Expressway would be “not financeable ... in this economic and political environment,” said David Joyner, executive director of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, which received a $387 million TIFIA loan in July.

Similarly, BABs have been helpful for transportation financing, and any issuer with the ability to earn revenues through tolls “would be foolish not to take advantage of the Build America Bonds program,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which issued $1.375 billion of BABs last year. “The Turnpike’s plan is to be in the market [with more BABs] this summer.”

The volumes of BAB issuance the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials expected “was about 10% of what showed up,” said Jack Basso, head of finance and management for AASHTO.

The group “would like to see more done” on tax-credit bonds, he added.

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