$17.6 billion ‘jobs bill’ passes Senate, transfers $19.5 billion into Highway Trust Fund

St. Patrick’s Day must be lucky for than the Irish. Looks like the transportation industry is in luck until at least the end of the year.

The Senate voted 68-34 on March 17 to pass H.R. 2847, the $17.6 billion “jobs bill” known as the HIRE Act, which extends the current surface transportation law until Dec. 31 and transfers $19.5 billion in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to ensure the fund’s solvency during the extension and restoring the recission that occured at the end of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity act–A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).

The final vote occurred after a 63 – 34 vote supporting a motion to waive a budget point of order raised by Republican Judd Gregg (N.H.), according to a special Washington Watch report from the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA). At press time, the bill was just waiting a signature from President Barack Obama.

The bill grew from $15 billion in the House to $17.6 billion after an expansion of the Build America Bonds financing.

Eleven Republicans (Lamar Alexander, Tenn.; Kit Bond, Mo.; Scott Brown, Mass; Richard Burr, N.C.; Thad Cochran, Miss.; Susan Collins, Maine; Jim Inhofe, Okla.; George LeMieux, Fla.; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; Olympia Snowe, Maine; and George Voinovich, Ohio) voted for passage, while one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska opposed it, according to the NSSGA report.

This solves the problem in the short-term, but now Congress must work on a six-year surface transportation reauthorization. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has called for a six-year, half-billion bill. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said March 15 that a six-year bill is on the White House’s radar, NSSGA notes.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will continue its series of transportation hearings on March 18, when members will hear from witnesses on rural and urban mobility, NSSGA says.

However, NSSGA points out that finding the funds to pay for a $400 billion to $500 billion bill will be difficult. LaHood said that President Obama wants a bill that is bipartisan and fully paid for, but the funds are not there. LaHood said that in the interim, the DOT will push Congress to create a $4 billion infrastructure bank that is included in the administration’s FY 2011 budget and, that the secretary said the department would be soliciting proposals for how to spend $1 billion in discretionary spending this fiscal year, according to NSSGA.

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American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) President & CEO Pete Ruane says that the jobs bill passed on March 17 will stabilize the federal highway and public transportation programs to help maximize employment and economic activity in the 2010 construction season. 

“The bill also pays back to the trust fund interest earnings sacrificed in 1998, and ensures that future interest generated will be dedicated for transportation infrastructure improvements,” Ruane said in a written statement. “…it ends the practice of penalizing the trust fund for fuel tax exemptions granted to certain users — creating approximately $1.5 billion in additional revenue annually to support infrastructure investment.

“Today’s vote was a victory, but we must keep our eye on the larger objective: passage this year of a robust, multi-year highway and transit authorization bill,” Ruane continued.