A Senate committee Wednesday voted unanimously to approve a bipartisan, $109 billion, two-year surface transportation bill that maintains current funding levels for highways and provides another $2 billion for a program that provides federal credit assistance for projects.

The 18-to-0 vote for MAP-21, Moving Ahead For Progress in the 21st Century (S. 1813), by members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is a first step toward moving a bill through the chamber. Three committees — banking, finance, and commerce, science and transportation — would have to add sections on transit, revenue, and safety and freight, which are in their jurisdictions.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., the top Republican on the committee, who drafted the bill along with committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the measure still has a $12 billion shortfall because of declining revenue in the highway trust fund, which takes in gas taxes and other user fees that are used to fund highway programs.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a panel member and chairman of the Finance Committee, told fellow lawmakers he is working hard to find those revenues.

But Inhofe warned: “I want to reassure my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that if for any reason the necessary funding isn’t secured, I believe we would need to go back to the drawing board.”

Boxer said the bill would protect 1.8 million existing transportation jobs and create up to one million more because of the way the measure would leverage federal funds.

In particular, it would increase funding by $1 billion per year for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which provides federal loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to finance surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.

It also would increase to 49% from 33% the total amount of TIFIA credit assistance that could be used for projects.

Transportation groups, who want longer-term legislation, nevertheless applauded the committee’s action and urged lawmakers to move the bill forward. The last six-year reauthorization bill — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, expired in September 2009 and has been temporarily extended eight times.

“After more than two years of short-term extensions and with an economy desperate for an immediate boost, action on this multi-year bill surface transportation reauthorization bill should occur as soon as possible,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

The committee vote came after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said this week that House Republicans will introduce a six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill this month that he would like the House to vote on by the end of the year. Boehner said recently that he is willing to try to come up with revenue to maintain current funding levels for transportation programs, which would require more than $300 billion.

“I think we have a very good change of getting a bill through the Senate,” said Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “At least there’s talk about trying to get it done.”

Noting that the congressional schedule is crowded with legislation and holidays, Kavinoky said, “It will take some deft handling of calendars by the leadership for this to get done, but it’s not impossible.”

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