WASHINGTON - Congress may be hard pressed to reauthorize the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users before it expires on Sept. 30, 2009, congressional aides told transportation lobbyists yesterday.

"Meeting the deadline will be very difficult," Jim Tymon, minority staff director of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's panel on highways and transit, said at the Federal Issues Program held here by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

One big hurdle is that it may take months for a new administration to draft a SAFETEA-LU reauthorization proposal, Tymon and other Senate and House aides said.

The aides were vague as to how lawmakers might alter SAFETEA-LU, which currently authorizes funding for highway and transit programs.

Speaking in general terms, Jim Kolb, majority staff director of the panel, said lawmakers need to find "new revenue sources" and "a variety" of ways to finance transportation projects.

But increasing the 18.4-cent federal gas tax will not be an option because of skyrocketing gas prices, and the complaints that lawmakers would face from consumers, Tymon and others said.

Tymon's comments come in the wake of a report released in January by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which recommended a boost in the federal gas tax by as much as eight cents a year over five years as well as indexing the tax for inflation after the fifth year.

Currently, federal highway and transit construction funds come from the gas tax. The revenues are put into the highway trust fund and distributed to states annually based on a formula.

The commission report also said that $170 billion annually will be needed just for upkeep of the nation's transportation infrastructure and there still remains the $3.2 billion shortfall in the trust fund for fiscal 2009 alone.

Transportation lobbying groups and nonprofit organizations have been warning that the country's transportation infrastructure investments lag far behind countries across the globe, and that public-private partnerships and federal investment dollars are severely needed for infrastructure projects to progress.

P3s, which have been pushed by the current administration but have drawn skepticism from several lawmakers, should be a "part of the mix" of financing options, the aides said. James O'Keefe, senior economist on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that P3s are an "important" part of transportation financing, but "not the solution."

Panelists also said the focus of transportation financing should go beyond state and local governments. "We need to start thinking regionally and nationally," Tymon said.


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