Congress approves six-year highway bill

After a nearly two-year wait, Congress approved a multi-year federal funding bill for highway and transit construction projects July 29.

The House of Representatives approved the six-year, $286.5 billion Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users bill by a vote of 412 to 8 and the Senate approved the measure 91 to 4. Bush had vowed to veto any bill allocating more than $284 billion, but his aides now say he will sign the legislation.

According to the American Highway Users Alliance, 79 percent of the funding will go to highway programs, 18.5 percent will be used for transit projects and the remaining 2.5 percent is for behavioral safety grants and enforcement under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“This is another positive step in a long process,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The last six-year highway funding program — the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which SAFETEA-LU would replace — expired in September 2003 and has been temporarily extended 11 times. SAFETEA-LU increases funding 30 percent compared to TEA-21.

Different versions of the current bill have been passed back and forth in Congress since 2003 due to disagreements about the amount of funding it deserved. A Senate version of the bill in May sought $295 billion, while the previous House-approved bill authorized $284 billion.

Pete Ruane, president and chief executive of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said his organization was satisfied.

“We commend the bipartisan leadership of the…committees for their perseverance and commitment to America’s transportation infrastructure network,” he said in a statement. “The bill embraces a number of significant new policy actions that help lay the foundation for addressing the nation’s highway and transit needs.”

Stephen Sandherr, chief executive of the Associated General Contractors of America, said he is pleased the bill includes several policy changes, such as improving work zone safety and reforming the environmental review process, that his group recommended.

“Considering the budgetary constraints, House and Senate conferees used every available revenue source to increase funding,” Sandherr said. “Transportation needs remain great and, while this legislation moves us in the right direction, fully addressing those needs should remain a priority.”

TEA-21, the program that expired in 2003, authorized $217 billion over six years, 40 percent more than its predecessor, the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.

Part of the holdup in Congress had to do with funding formulas for states. Money for highway construction programs comes from gas taxes contributed to the federal Highway Trust Fund by each state. Because many states put more money in gas taxes into the federal fund than they get back in construction grants, lawmakers from those “donor states” wanted, and received, more money for their districts in the new bill. Lawmakers rejected proposals to raise gas taxes to better fund the bill.

Among key safety provisions approved, Congress would reward states with grants for passing tough seat belt laws. The bill also would allow private companies to raise up to $15 billion for highway projects with bonds that are exempt from federal income taxes. In addition, it expanded the ethanol excise tax credit to include alternative fuels.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released a report in February outlining some of the legislation’s strongest assets. State allocations for highway and transit upkeep will grow from $40 billion in 2004 to $60 billion in 2009, the report noted. Also, with congestion relief programs included in the bill, motorists are estimated to save $67 billion dollars of lost productivity and wasted fuel.