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American Shipper

Senate passes two-year highway bill

   The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a two-year, $109 billion bill reauthorizing Department of Transportation programs for highway infrastructure and safety.
   The 74-22 vote in favor of S. 1813, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) was a rare display of bipartisanship in a legislative body that has had difficulty agreeing on anything in the past two years.
   The bill allows spending for highway, transit and rail programs to continue at existing levels. Advocates for transportation investment are satisfied that spending is maintained given the difficult budget situation, although their preference is for a bill of five years that provides more funding certainty.
   The House is considering a five-year, $260 billion surface transportation blueprint crafted by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica. It would provide $52 billion per year versus $54.5 billion under MAP-21. The eighth short-term extension of the highway transportation bill is scheduled to expire March 31. Freight transportation, public safety, transit, and motorist groups all urged the House to quickly pass a bill before the deadline. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials said Congress should pass another short-term extension if needed to buy time for completing a sound, two-year bill and avoid a shutdown of highway and transit programs.
   Many of the reforms and financing approaches in the Senate and House versions of the bill are similar. 
   Trade associations and state transport officials said the Senate legislation would provide a degree of funding certainty for states necessary to move ahead on large projects. The bill is a departure from previous transport legislation because it consolidates programs, attempts to streamline environmental reviews to get projects started faster, focuses on highway freight corridors, and sets standards for measuring and reporting how projects are meeting their intended mobility, safety, or economic objective.
   Multiple programs would be consolidated into core programs that give states more flexibility for addressing highway maintenance and upgrades, transportation mobility, air pollution, and safety, and establish a new dedicated freight program that provides funds to the states by formula for projects to improve regional and national freight movement.
   The attention to freight infrastructure is considered a positive step by the business community. The bill also calls on the transportation secretary to develop a freight strategic plan.
   The bill prevents fuel taxes from being used to build private highways or states from adding new tolls to the interstate highway system.
   “Our nation’s neglected transportation system has created bottlenecks and inefficiencies that are getting worse every day,” David French, National Retail Federation senior vice president of government relations, said in a statement. “As bad as things are, they will only get worse if Congress misses the deadline we face at the end of the month and leaves transportation funding in limbo. The House needs to follow the Senate’s example and pass a long-term funding bill as soon as they return from recess. Businesses rely on a dependable transportation system and jobs are at stake. Getting this bill done is critical to the competitiveness of U.S. industries.”
   The Senate bill pulls funding from some non-traditional accounts to make up for the gap in the Highway Trust Fund between fuel and excise-tax collections and obligations to states. — Eric Kulisch

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