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Congress Clears Highway Program Extension

September 15, 2011

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The Senate yesterday approved, 92 to 6, a measure that will extend the current highway program through next March, clearing the way for final passage.


The bill cleared the House earlier this week, but was held up in the Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who objected to a provision that requires states to spend funds on projects not directly related to highway construction, such as bike paths and walking trails. The enhancement programs amount to about 2% of the federal transportation budget, according to the Transportation Department.

According to published reports, Sen. Coburn agreed to drop his opposition when Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., assured him that the upcoming highway reauthorization legislation will give states more flexibility to spend that money on highway priorities. Boxer chairs, and Inhofe is the ranking minority member of, the Environment and Public Works Committee, the key Senate panel on highway policy.

According to a news report in The Hill, the compromise also allowed Coburn and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to offer amendments on a separate disaster relief bill, and allowed Paul to offer two amendments to the FAA/highway bill.

Once Coburn dropped his objection, the bill passed easily, 92-6. Democrats also easily turned back the Paul amendments, which would have cut overall transportation funding, according to published reports.

President Obama is expected to sign the measure today. It is the eighth temporary extension of the program.

This sets the stage for resumption of the long-running struggle to get a multi-year highway authorization bill out of Congress.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has a six-year reauthorization bill funded only by what the Highway Trust Fund produces, which amounts to a 36% cut in highway funding. The Senate EPW panel is pushing a two-year bill with the aim of preserving the current funding at $54.5 billion a year.

Mica has said that he will agree only to this extension of the highway program. If he stands firm on that, Congress will have until the end of March to pass a multi-year bill.

The highway community was pleased by passage of the measure. John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the bill ensures continuation of job-creating infrastructure projects in every state.

"AASHTO is prepared to work with Congress and the Administration over the next six months to pass a robust, multiyear, surface transportation reauthorization bill," he said in a statement.

The bill also extends taxes that fund the Federal Aviation Administration, thus avoiding a repeat of last month's shutdown of that agency.

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