ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

SAFETEA picking up pace

A tremendous amount of activity has occurred over the past two weeks on reauthorization. The next three weeks before Congress recesses for the week-long President’s Day holiday, also look to be extremely busy. What all this activity means is still hard to tell.

With no decisions reached yet on how to fund the bill, the whole reauthorization effort still could easily implode, postponing consideration into 2005. On the other hand, strong congressional leadership interest in the bill - – coupled with significant grassroots activity – could force a deal, permitting the bill to move quickly.

Outlined below are various activities in the major committees of jurisdiction. Some of the information is fact, a lot of it is pure rumor, but at this point rumors can be as important as fact.

House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee
The number of co-sponsors of the committee’s TEA LU bill is now up to 102.

The committee still tentatively is scheduled to mark up HR 3550 in subcommittee on February 3 and in full committee February 4.

There still is no word from Speaker Hastert about his plan for financing the bill, but rumor has it the size of his potential plan has dropped from approximately $350 billion (as compared to the TEA LU level of $375 billion) to $320 billion or even lower to $311 billion (the same level as proposed in the senate). It will not include a tax increase, but is expected to guarantee the funding levels and propose some sort of bonding mechanism.

The big activity this week in the committee was the start of the project earmarking process. The committee has decided to combine the $15 billion for highway high priority projects with the $5 billon in transit bus earmarks for a total earmarked pot of approximately $20 billion. The pot was split 55% to Republicans and 45% to Democrats to distribute. Republican staff began to make calls last week to individual members to give them their allocations.

Committee members and other congressional leaders will receive more money than rank and file members. In general, members have about 48 hours to report back which projects they want to use their allocations for. Although all members were asked to submit project requests this time last year, it does not appear that members are being held to those specific projects or amounts.

The committee staff and leadership continue to meet to resolve remaining policy issues. This week they addressed planning, environmental streamlining, transit and public/private ventures. Many of these issues were under debate when the bill was introduced last fall and were “reserved” in the original bill text.

Final language likely will be added to the bill as part of a “manager’s amendment” either at full or subcommittee markup.

House Ways & Means Committee
This committee must come up with the revenue plan for the House T&I Committee bill, presumably before it can go to the House floor. The committee leadership strongly opposes a gas tax increase. There is no word on when the committee expects to act.

Senate Environment & Public Works Committee
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist still hopes to bring the TEA-21 bill to the Senate floor the week of February 2. It is unclear whether the Senate Finance and Banking Committee titles will be ready for consideration at that time or only the EPW highway title. It is expected that the bill will be on the floor for a number of days since hundreds of amendments are anticipated, especially from senators who feel their states will lose out under the proposed funding formulas.

The big news out of the EPW Committee was the meeting Chairman Inhofe (R-OK) had with Senators to give them the chart showing how he proposes to calculate state highway formula distributions and to explain how his “equity bonus” program would work. The goal of the “equity bonus,” which replaces the current “minimum guarantee” program, is to increase the donor/donee rate of return from the current 90.5% to 95%.

As expected there are some winners and some losers. A number of states such as New York and Pennsylvania will see their funding levels drop over the life of the bill. Some donor states, such as California and Texas, will see their share jump to 95% but only in the final years of the bill. While the list is certainly creating cries of opposition from perceived “losers,” Inhofe feels he has the 60 votes he needs to approve his plan on the floor.

Senate Banking Committee
The Banking Committee has jurisdiction over the transit title of the bill. The transit title has not yet been introduced or marked up. The committee plans to wait until after the Senate Finance Committee acts on the revenue title before the committee will unveil its bill.

Banking committee leaders remain concerned about the Finance Committee’s previous efforts to propose the so-called “Baucus Grassley” plan to replace transit gas tax revenue with tax credit bonds. It appears this proposal is dead, but the Banking Committee isn’t taking any chances.

Rumor has it the banking title may not guarantee the general fund portion of transit funding which if true would be a severe set back for the program.

Senate Finance Committee
Everyone is waiting with baited breath to see how the Finance Committee proposes to fund the $311B Senate bill. It appears that they will not be recommending a gas tax increase or bonding. Instead they will propose a mix of miscellaneous revenue sources.

One rumored source of revenue is to change the current tax exemption for public sector and non-profit agencies to a tax credit which would be funded by the general fund. Also, possible is a recommendation for the transfer of up to $16 billion from the general fund, to be paid back at a later date.

The committee was scheduled to mark up the finance title on Wednesday (Jan. 28) in order to be ready for floor action the week of February 2.

This week in a speech to the U.S Conference of Mayors, USDOT Secretary Norm Mineta reiterated the Administration’s strong opposition to a gas tax increase.

DOT was expected to support an increase in the size of its SAFETEA bill as part of its FY2005 budget submission, but that may no longer happen. It has been rumored that if DOT proposes an increase, it would only be a very modest jump over their proposed level of $247 billion, perhaps only to $266 billion.

By Chris Zeilinger
Community Transportation Association of America
Apparently, some snags are being worked out in the Senate's deal for financing the federal transit program through FY 2009. So, the Finance and Banking Committee sessions to draft the revenue and transit portions of TEA-21 reauthorization have been pushed back a week, to February 2, 3 or 4.

Curiously, Senate floor debate on the reauthorization bill is slated to begin at the same time.

Meanwhile, copies of the Banking Committee's preliminary draft for the transit reauthorization are circulating through cyberspace. If one of these files lands in your e-mail, you'll see that it is lacking the dollar figures and percentages for most programs, which is probably what we'd most like to see right now.

The word from the rumor mill is that Banking Committee members were given through this Thursday, Jan. 29, to get their suggested amendments filed with chairman Richard Shelbey (R-Ala.).

The Senate is expected to take up reauthorization of the federal highway, highway safety, motor carrier safety and transit programs the week of Feb. 2. Of the four committees that have jurisdiction over components to the bill – Environment and Public Works (highways), Commerce (highway safety and motor carriers), Banking (transit), and Finance (financing and the Highway Trust Fund) – only the first two have completed work on their respective bills.

The Banking and Finance committees are expected to mark up and report their measures next week. Based on past experience, as many as 200 amendments to the Senate's SAFETEA could be filed.