Take Two: House passes another SAFETEA-LU extension

The House of Representatives passed the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012, Part II, on April 18 by a vote of 293 to 127.

Included in the extension is language to transfer the authority to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project from the Department of State to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Under the provisions of the extension, FERC would be required to issue a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline within 30 days of receiving an application. If no action is taken, the application would be deemed approved after the 30-day period.

The bill formally known as (H.R. 4348) extends Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEALU) – the current highway bill – through Sept. 30, 2012. Part I of this extension (H.R 4281) was passed March 29 month just two days before it was set to expire March 31. (For the article “Uncharted Road Ahead,” which goes more in-depth on the short-term reauthorizations of SAFETEA-LU, click here.)

The original bill expired on Sept. 30, 2009. SAFETEA-LU’s predecessor, The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), enacted on Aug. 10, 2005, underwent 12 extensions throughout a two-year period.

Toby Mack, president of Associated Equipment Distributors (AED), says that the uncertainty surrounding federal surface transportation programs has hurt construction contractors and suppliers.

“[It has] forced us to delay transportation improvements vital to the long-term health of the U.S. economy,” Mack said in a formal statement following the House vote. However, Mack says that AED “is pleased that the House has finally passed legislation to move the highway and transit reauthorization process forward.”

AED is calling for a multi-year bill that creates new user fees. The organization says this would “ensure the Highway Trust Fund’s long-term integrity [and would] increase investment to the levels necessary to improve the nation’s transportation system.”

However, since there is no clear idea of when a long-term reauthorization would be passed, Mack says AED believes a swift conference on H.R. 4348 and MAP-21, the Senate’s two-year highway bill, “is the best way to keep the reauthorization process moving forward and restore some near-term certainty to federal infrastructure programs.”

U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, says this legislation will allow programs to continue through the fiscal year and provide predictability during the summer construction season.

“The environmental streamlining provisions would also eliminate duplication by providing a single system to review decisions,” Duncan says in a written statement. “It reduces bureaucratic delay by requiring concurrent, instead of consecutive, project reviews and setting deadlines for the completion of environmental reviews. These changes will cut the delivery process in half and save taxpayers a great deal of money.”

U.S. Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says the bill contains no tax increases, earmarks, or new federal government programs, quipping that  it may “disappoint Democrats,” but the legislation “will help move the process forward in working to resolve differences with the Senate.”

In a press statement, Mica pounces on President Obama, noting that “when the President first sold the stimulus as an infrastructure bill, he failed to address the red tape that delays the approval of transportation projects. ‘Shovel-ready’ became a national joke because it takes so long to get the bureaucratic approvals for a project. This bill includes important provisions to significantly reduce the red tape that leaves projects and jobs behind.”

Mica also purports that the bill includes provisions to help ensure funds collected for the maintenance and improvement of our nation’s harbors are invested for that purpose. He also touts that the bill moves forward with the Keystone pipeline project.

“While the Administration meanders on developing any kind of real energy policy, this measure will help lower energy costs and create jobs for Americans, particularly important as gasoline prices continue to skyrocket because of the squeeze that the Obama Administration has put on production of our energy assets here at home,” Mica said.

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) Dennis Slater also applauded the House action to pass its highway bill and move to conference with the Senate. “After many failed attempts, partisan politics were put aside and there was bipartisan support for this critical job-creating legislation,” Slater said.

Slater says that  coupled with the Keystone XL pipeline approval, “a final highway bill has the potential to jump start the construction industry across this country as we head into the construction season. Therefore, the timing of this legislation is critical.”

U.S. Congressman Jason Altmire (Pa.-04), a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, voted in favor of the latest extension. Despite voting for the short-term extension, he says that it doesn’t eliminate the need for a long-term solution.

“Inaction by Congress to produce a long-term reauthorization of our surface transportation programs is not an option,” Altmire said in a written statement after the vote. Altmire says the area the economy of Western Pennsylvania, the area he represents in Congress, depends on solid infrastructure, but “our roads and bridges are crumbling.

“An extension of these programs immediately creates jobs and helps strengthen our infrastructure to meet our growing economic needs, but a long-term reauthorization is our goal,” Altmire said. “Western Pennsylvania is doing its part to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources, but we cannot do it alone. The Keystone pipeline will create thousands of jobs, and is one of the most important economic investments we can make. The construction of the Keystone pipeline will lower the cost of fuel for millions of American families. This is a vital project and we must work to get construction underway.”