The House and Senate are hurtling toward a deadline this weekend to extend the current surface transportation law, but bills pending in each chamber differ significantly in how funds would be allocated to the states.
The jobs bill approved by the Senate this week would allow the highway trust fund to continue to collect tax revenue and pay them out to states for construction projects, providing some assurance to state transportation departments worried about their future reimbursements from the fund. It also would extend the law through the end of this year.
But the bill includes a provision for $932 million that irked several members of state delegations and House transportation leaders. According to congressional staff and several letters, the Senate jobs bill would give that money to earmarked projects originally written into the surface transportation law, called the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, that was enacted in 2005.
The provision “skews the highway formula to certain states,” four Missouri congressmen said in a letter to House and Senate leaders. At least 43 members of the House and Senate have signed onto letters urging congressional leaders to reject the Senate provision.
California, Illinois, Louisiana, and Washington would claim $543 million — or 58% — of the funds based on those earmarks. Nine states would get from $20 million to $50 million, 31 states would get $5 million or less, and 22 states would have no shot at the grants, the letters said.
Those funds should instead be used for nationally and regionally significant projects and corridor improvements, through a competitive or discretionary process, said opponents of the Senate provision.
“This is not a new concept,” 23 House Democrats said in a letter sent to House leaders. “It has been the position of the House in multiple surface transportation extensions that we have passed this Congress.”
They suggested using the money to fund “worthy applications” to the oversubscribed Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program.
In contrast, the Jobs for Main Street Act, which the House approved in December, would allow U.S. Department of Transportation to select the projects on a competitive basis.
The Senate measure also does not include funding for the Appalachian Development Highway System. That exclusion prompted letters this week from nine senators and 12 representatives from Appalachian states asking Senate leaders to revise that part of the bill.
But time is running out for House and Senate members, who must agree on a compromise measure extending the surface transportation law or risk shutting down national highway and transit programs. The current extension expires Sunday.
The Senate bill also would transfer another $19.5 billion into the highway trust fund to protect it from going broke before the extension runs out. Trust fund revenues have not kept up with outlays, necessitating two general fund transfers in the past two years. The fund is expected to scrape bottom this year without another fix.
The House bill would extend current highway and transit programs through Sept. 30, and like the Senate bill would provide another $19.5 billion buffer for the highway trust fund.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., has been pushing since last week for a “clean” extension of the current surface transportation law without any additional provisions.