The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 18 to 1 yesterday to extend the current transportation law by 18 months so lawmakers have more time to reach consensus on how to fund a multi-year replacement law and can focus on pending health care and climate change legislation.

Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla, the top Republican of the House Transportation Committee, immediately warned a delay would be "a prelude to a national disaster" because it will shut down major infrastructure projects.

Committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., insisted an 18-month extension is necessary to provide the states with certainty about transportation funding and to come up with an alternative to a gas tax increase for funding of the highway trust fund.

"I feel very strongly about this. A 12-month extension does not give the states and our workers any certainty," she said, adding, "We have to come up with a better long-term source of funding for the highway trust fund."

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU is currently scheduled to expire on Sept. 30 and the highway trust fund is expected to run out of money in the middle of next month.

Boxer and ranking minority member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., strongly pushed for the continuing resolution that would provide the 18-month extension, telling committee members they were determined to keep it "clean," without amendments, to ensure its passage by the full Senate. Boxer said she would make sure that some amendments to the legislation are considered when it reaches the Senate floor. The Senate Finance Committee must also approve the CR.

Boxer said the 18-month extension of the law at the fiscal 2009 funding levels of $41 billion in fiscal 2010 and $20.5 billion in fiscal 2011, combined with $30 billion in unspent stimulus funds for transportation projects, would result in a 50% increase in the money that could be spent on transportation during the next year and a half.

Though it was his birthday, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, the ranking minority member of the committee's transportation and infrastructure panel, failed to get committee members to agree to an amendment that would have extended the law 12 months. They voted 11 to 8 against the proposal. Voinovich was worried an 18-month extension would put debate over a new multi-year law in the middle of the next presidential election and deter its chances of passage.

Sen, Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., opposed the 12-month extension, saying it would put debate of a new multi-year bill in the middle of congressional elections.

e_SDLqI think we'll find ourselves listening to election speeches," he said.

A House Transportation Committee panel recently approved a multi-year transportation bill that was introduced by chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., who has fiercely opposed an extension. That bill is pending before the full committee. No extension of the current law has yet to be introduced in the House.

Oberstar, several other lawmakers, and industry opponents of an extension say it would create uncertainty for state transportation officials who cannot begin multi-year planning without knowing what they will receive in multi-year funding from the federal government. They propose transferring general funds into the highway trust fund and want to push lawmakers to quickly decide how to proceed with the next multi-year bill.

Oberstar said earlier this week that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., supports his campaign to pass a new law this year. But the House Ways and Means Committee has yet to complete its work on the revenue portion of the bill, and the House Transportation Committee will not vote on the bill until that happens, according to a spokesman for the transportation committee. If both committees approve the bill, it would be subject to approval by the full House.

Lawmakers and the Obama administration have butted heads over whether to fund the new multi-year bill with a gasoline tax increase, a new mileage tax, or private investment.

Boxer said she has already come up with a name for the multi-year bill: MAP-21, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.

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