McConnell: Senate Highway Bill Blocks Innovation

Posted March 24, 2012 at 7:22am

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expanded on his “no” vote on the transportation bill his chamber passed last week, arguing Friday that it would stifle innovative state programs.

Authorization for federal surface transportation programs expires at the end of the month and the House and Senate are at loggerheads over a reauthorization.

McConnell said his “principle motivation” in opposing the Senate bill, which passed 74-22 on March 14, was because of an amendment from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would prevent privatized highways from being taken in to account when doling out federal highway funds.

The Bingaman amendment, which passed 50-47, would make privatizing roads a less attractive option for states.

“Transportation is very popular in our Conference, but [the bill] ended up having some ‘no’ votes, including my own,” McConnell said at a news conference. “My principle reason for opposing it was that there is a provision in there by Sen. Bingaman that basically prevented the innovative effort by governors, like Mitch Daniels, to do outside-the-box funding mechanisms for their state highway systems.”

Daniels (R-Ind.) was the driving force behind a 2006 deal in which the state leased the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road to a private consortium that will operate, maintain and collects tolls for 75 years. The consortium, which includes a subsidiary of the Australian investment bank Macquarie Group, paid the state a lump sum of $3.8 billion.

“We don’t have enough money generated by the gas tax to take care of all the infrastructure needs we have in this country,” McConnell said. “Why in the world would we want, at the federal level, to prevent creative and innovative governors from figuring out some out-of-the-box way to meet their transportation needs?”

Daniels became an evangelist of public-private transportation partnerships, appearing before Congress to sing the deal’s praises and urge other states to pursue their own.

Short-Term Blues

McConnell said he expects Congress to pass a short-term extension to give the House additional time to work on its transportation bill.

The laws authorizing surface transportation programs expire March 31. If no action is taken next week, the Department of Transportation could have to furlough workers and federal funding for transportation projects would cease to flow, although work would continue on many projects because of funding already in place.

House Republicans have returned to pursuing a five-year transportation package funded largely by oil and gas drilling revenue. That had been their initial plan, but they changed course after some conservatives came out against the proposal because it was too costly. GOP leaders also explored passing an 18-month measure.

“The problem with the Senate bill is that it doesn’t address the issue of rising gas prices and energy,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday. “We believe that if we’re going to reauthorize the highway bill, American energy production ought to be a critical part of this.”

The Senate bill would reauthorize surface transportation programs for two years and provide $109 billion in funding.

House Republicans have said they plan to pass 90-day extension of the current transportation law, a move that would put them on a collision course with Senate Democrats, who want the House to pass the Senate bill.

“I am not inclined to go for this short-term extension they are going to send to us,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the floor Thursday. “They are going to have to feel the heat from the American people.”

Other Democrats also sought to ratchet up the pressure on the House.

“On March 31, it’s all over but the shouting,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Thursday. “There is no more ability to collect [the] gas tax for the trust fund, and the trust fund is running dry.”

President Barack Obama used his weekly address to make a pitch for House action on the Senate bill.

“The Senate did their part. They passed a bipartisan transportation bill. It had the support of 52 Democrats and 22 Republicans,” Obama said. “Now it’s up to the House to follow suit; to put aside partisan posturing, end the gridlock and do what’s right for the American people.”

It is unlikely that either side would be willing to allow transportation programs to expire, but it is not out of the question. Congress let the Federal Aviation Administration partially shut down for a brief period last summer over a disagreement over what to include in a short-term extension.

Corrected: 10:53 a.m.

An earlier version of this article misstated the length of the transportation law extension House Republicans say they will pass.