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CongressNow Overview: Transportation Fights Loom — Follow the Money

After spending much of the early session debating the economic stimulus measure, which contained tens of billions of dollars for road and transit projects, Congress in the coming weeks will get to work on a massive transportation blueprint expected to cost hundreds of billions more over five years.

The roughly $45 billion for transportation included in the stimulus was welcome news for many people working in the transportation industry, but it fell far short of the spending envisioned by some.

“That’s a shot in the arm but a lot less than what’s needed,” said Deron Lovaas, the federal transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Groups such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials told the Obama administration earlier this month that they had twice as many “shovel-ready” projects than were funded under the bill that the president signed into law last week.

But lawmakers and interest groups will soon get another bite at the apple during the transportation reauthorization debate, a ritual that takes place once every five years and charts the direction of federal transportation programs.

Key Democrats, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (Minn.) and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (Calif.), are preparing the Herculean task of writing a new highway bill to replace the one that expires in September.

In some respects, the transportation talks will be an extension of the stimulus debate, with its heavy focus on job creation through infrastructure spending. Oberstar, who was an aggressive advocate for infrastructure spending in the House stimulus, said last month that the highway bill will provide “the building blocks for the long-term recovery of the nation.”

Boxer has also touted the economic effect of public works spending as a factor that will underpin transportation reauthorization.

The size of the stimulus may have squelched the appetite of some in Congress to authorize further spending for road construction, but the American Road & Transportation Builders Association has warned that the jobs saved by the recovery package will be in jeopardy until a multiyear transportation bill is signed into law.

Boxer recently rejected the notion that the recovery package amounts to a substitute for the highway bill. “It is a jolt to the economy, and we get back and do our five-year plan,” she said.

However, unlike the cost of the stimulus, which was simply added to the deficit as emergency spending, lawmakers will face tough decisions on paying for the estimated $500 billion in spending that will be authorized by the transportation bill.

There is widespread agreement that the current system of fuel taxes that largely finances federal transportation efforts is in need of an overhaul. The limits of the 18.4 cents per gallon tax on gasoline that funds road construction were on display last year, when highway funds dwindled as high fuel prices forced Americans to cut down on driving.

That prompted Congress to add $8 billion into the highway account last fall, and while gas prices have tumbled from last year’s record highs, so has the economy. The current recession also creates a tough political climate for boosting the gas tax, as a high-profile federal commission urged last year.

But Lovaas warns against viewing the highway bill only through a short-term economic lens, which he said could forestall longer-term transportation reforms. For instance, Boxer and Oberstar have both said that they plan to use the debate to implement policies to promote energy independence and curb global warming — goals shared by President Barack Obama.

Oberstar’s committee is already looking at ways to reduce energy use and the environmental effects associated with transportation, and Boxer has signaled that improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be among her guiding principles.

Both have signaled their intent to pass a bill before the current law expires, but if past experience is any guide, final passage could easily slip into next year, requiring an extension of the current law.

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