Senate approves highway spending bill

The U.S. Senate‘s approval of a highway bill May 17 has set the stage for negotiations with the House and a possible showdown with the president.

In a bipartisan 89-11 vote, the Senate approved a bill that provides $295 billion for repairing and building the nation’s roads and bridges, as well as funding public transit and highway safety programs. In March the House approved a separate $284 billion package — the exact amount President Bush has said he will authorize. Citing concerns about the federal deficit, he has threatened to veto any bill calling for a higher amount.

“The administration’s request falls far short of the investment that is needed to maintain and repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure,” Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said in a statement. “Funding our transportation programs at sufficient levels is critical to improve highway safety, alleviate congestion, create jobs and spark economic growth.”

The Federal Highway Administration reports poor road conditions contribute to one-third of annual traffic fatalities, and road congestion costs the U.S. more than $60 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel each year according to the 2005 Urban Mobility Report by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Increased investment allows states to address safety and congestion challenges effectively, said Dave Bauer, senior vice president of government relations for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. “The House version would barely keep pace with inflation, and this industry is directly impacted by things like the cost of materials that are tied to inflation,” he said. “Exceeding inflationary projections allows progress to proceed in those areas.”

The current transportation bill expired in September 2003 and has received six temporary extensions, the last of which will expire May 31. While construction certainly has not stopped, the extensions have had an impact on the transportation construction industry.

“The extensions have complicated the ability of some states to continue long-term projects,” Bauer said. “Folks aren’t certain about what they’re going to see in terms of federal dollars, so some states have decided not to make long-term commitments until they know for sure. But other states have moved forward despite the uncertainty.”

Brian Deery, senior director of the highway and transportation division of the Associated General Contractors of America, agrees.

“Not knowing the level of funding that will be available to states for their highway programs makes it difficult for both states and contractors to do long-term planning,” he said. “For states, it means they have held back on designing larger projects that are likely to take more than one year to complete. For contractors, they have deferred investing in new equipment and hiring and training employees.”

The issue now goes to a conference committee where the House and Senate will attempt to iron out their $11 billion differences before the extension expires May 31. Conferees have not yet been named.

“It is very unlikely that an agreement can be reached on the overall bill before the next extension expires,” Deery said. “The naming of the conferees could in itself be controversial, and the whole issue could get embroiled in the debate over judicial nominees.”