The chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said Thursday that she wants the panel to approve a bipartisan, two-year $109 billion transportation reauthorization bill before Congress leaves for its August recess.
“We have to mark up this bill before we leave this summer,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said at a committee hearing on the draft bill, called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21.
The draft bill would replace the current surface transportation funding law — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU — that was to have expired on Sept. 30, 2009, but has been extended several times, most recently to Sept. 30 of this year.
Boxer obtained commitments from representatives of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the American Highway Users Alliance and others who testified at the hearing to support MAP-21 over draft legislation floated by her counterpart in the House, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Mica has drafted a six-year reauthorization bill that would cut funding for highway, transit and other surface transportation programs by about a third of their current levels.
Boxer’s two-year bill would maintain current funding levels, but only if the Senate Finance Committee is able to come up with $12 billion to help pay for the bill.
During the hearing, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is also a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said, “I feel very confident that, working on a bipartisan basis, we’ll find that $12 billion.”
However, Baucus said his colleagues on the Finance Committee are not willing to commit to anything until the debt limit situation is resolved. That suggests he may not get agreement on the funding anytime soon.
Democrats and Republicans stressed on Thursday afternoon that they were still far apart on terms for raising the debt limit after one newspaper erroneously reported that a pact was near. GOP leaders also said they would not work over the weekend, despite the looming Aug. 2 deadline for legislative action to avoid a credit downgrade for Treasuries or a default.
During the hearing, city and state officials as well as representatives of transportation groups praised the Boxer bill. The measure would increase the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program from $122 million to $1 billion per year and consolidate 87 programs authorized by SAFETEA-LU to less than 30 programs.
TIFIA provides loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit to help state and local governments leverage funds for transportation projects.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also urged lawmakers to create a new category of qualified tax-credit bonds that would be used to finance transportation infrastructure.
“These instruments would allow a larger portion of private investors to invest their resources in assets important to our country’s economy, while achieving a reasonable rate of return,” he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in March that he was working with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., on drafting legislation to create such debt, which he suggested could be called Transportation and Regional Infrastructure Project, or TRIP, bonds. But he has never introduced the legislation.