WASHINGTON — There are perceptible signs that a long-awaited surface transportation bill may actually be approved by Congress early next year.
Legislators haven’t been able to agree on a long-term bill since the last one expired in 2009. They have only passed a series of short-term extensions, leaving states, localities and companies lacking the ability to do much long-term planning for transportation projects.
Now, some industry advocates sound almost surprised with the change in their own attitudes.
“I’m more excited than I’ve been in some time,” said Laura Perrotta, director of government affairs for the American Traffic Safety Services Association.
“I actually for once am able to express some optimism about the chance of getting a surface transportation bill passed,” said Janet Kavinoky, director of congressional affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
David Bauer, senior vice president of government relations for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said that now, “the intent in both chambers is in the same direction” — meaning trying to maintain current transportation spending levels. However, Bauer cautioned, “The hard part is how to do it. I don’t want to be guilty of irrational exuberance here.”
The cautious optimism stems from the recent decision by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to allow $15 billion more per year in spending on surface transportation. House budget rules had limited Transportation Committee chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., to spending only the expected income of the Highway Trust Fund from fuel and other taxes, which has fallen in recent years and would only be about $35 billion per year for six years.
The additional $15 billion would bring federal surface transportation spending up to the current level and would close the monumental divide with the $55 billion that Senate Environment and Public Works chair Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has proposed to spend in each of two years.
Boxer was optimistic during a press conference call last week. “I see a real opportunity to get this done,” she said.
“Leadership has committed to looking for additional revenue sources. We will consider our options and hope to put forward some responsible solutions for additional resources for maintaining our infrastructure,” Mica’s spokesman said.
Bauer pointed out that “both chambers are in the same boat.” Boxer needs $12 billion over two years to completely fund her proposal. Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has spent months looking for “offsets,” cuts in other spending to provide the money.
But Melissa Loesburg, an analyst at the ISI Group, said Baucus is on the deficit reduction super committee, so he will have to be deciding which measures he wants to use for which bill.
The Boehner and Mica staffs, according to Perrotta, are in the preliminary stages of looking for revenue from oil or shale gas or some other energy source.
But Boxer warned the GOP: “If [you’re] talking about new controversial offshore oil drilling … that just sets up a huge fight and it’s the last thing you want.”
Looking at the potential conflicts, Loesburg said to expect either kicking the can down the road with more extensions or at most a two-year bill.