Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has introduced legislation to authorize $500 million of federal grant money for nationally or regionally important surface transportation projects.

The bill, S. 823, would extend from fiscal year 2013 to fiscal 2014 the $500 million authorized in last year’s surface transportation funding law, but never appropriated or disbursed. It would require the grants to be awarded on a competitive basis, in a way similar to the very popular Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery or TIGER grant program.

The grants are targeted towards major projects, many of which include bond-funding, that “accomplish national goals, such as generating national/regional economic benefits and improving safety, and that are difficult to complete with existing federal, state, local, and private funds,” according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Whitehouse has emphasized the benefit to his constituents, particularly how the bill might aid the Interstate-95 Viaduct project in Providence. That project, a massive replacement and relocation of a bridge in downtown Providence, already received a $10 million TIGER grant but Whitehouse said more money would help move the project forward.

“We need to continue investing in infrastructure to keep our highways and bridges safe, and to generate badly-needed jobs,” said Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  “This bill would establish a program to specifically target projects, such as northbound route 95 in Providence, that are vital to our national interest.  I’ll keep fighting to get this done.”

Because the funding would be predicated on a disbursement from the general fund, it would need to go through the normal appropriations process, even if it is passed into law.

While Whitehouse’s bill might find some traction in the Democrat-controlled Senate, its fate in the House is less certain. Joung Lee, associate director for finance and business development at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said major general fund expenditures on transportation have been a priority for President Obama and that fact could be a dividing line between the two chambers of Congress.

“It’s a signature initiative from the administration,” Lee said. “The Senate may be more inclined to support similar initiatives.”

Although lawmakers on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly agree that transportation investment is an important national priority, there is an increasing partisan divide over how to approach it. While Democrats favor a strong federal role, Republican lawmakers are increasingly inclined to explore the possibility of allowing states to take the lead.

The bill is currently awaiting action by the EPW Committee.

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