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Transport Advocates Optimistic About Road Bill Early Next Year
Monday, 19 October 2009 00:00
Timetable Affected by Health Care, Climate Debates.

Transportation officials said they are optimistic Congress still will pass a long-term highway bill in coming months, but the exact timetable could depend on how quickly lawmakers wrap up debate on other legislation.

Advocates for a long-term highway bill were buoyed by recent comments by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate majority whip and a close ally of the White House, at an Iowa economic forum during which he indicated his support for passing a six-year transportation bill early next year.

“We have to pay for it, and paying for it may mean an increase in the federal gas tax,” Durbin said Oct. 12 at the Tri-State Development Summit in Fairfield, Iowa. “Nobody wants to say those words,” he added. “I’ve said them to you because unless we’re honest about this, we’re not going to see an [adequate] federal highway bill.”

Durbin’s comments were reported by the Quincy (Ill.) Herald-Whig newspaper and confirmed to Transport Topics by a spokesman for the senator.

The newspaper also reported that Durbin told business, labor and community leaders a fuel tax increase would “stimulate new job creation in America.”

A Senate staffer, who asked not to be identified, said lawmakers were “not that far along yet” in highway bill negotiations, but that Durbin appeared to be “trying to get things started.”

Just before the Sept. 30 expiration of the current highway law, it was extended by Congress until the end of October.

Tim Lynch, a senior vice president at American Trucking Associations, told TT that Durbin’s comments, coupled with failed efforts by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to push through a three-month extension of the highway bill in late September, are sending a signal “that folks in the Senate may, in fact, want to move a [long-term] bill.”

“We’ve been pushing for that bill sooner rather than later since January,” said Jim Berard, spokesman for Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “So, it is a positive sign that there is support in the Senate.”

Despite this momentum, pending climate change and health-care legislation could delay action on a new highway bill, sources said.

Boxer said her committee would begin hearings on a cap-and-trade bill Oct. 27. She also said provisions have been sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for review.

ATA’s Lynch said if a climate bill passes, it could make it tougher for the federation to support an increase in taxes for the highway bill.

“. . . We would like to see Congress work on a reauthorization bill, and if they should move on a climate change bill first and impose substantial increases in the cost of fuel, this will make it extremely difficult for ATA to support a subsequent fuel tax increase to support the highway program,” he said.

Berard also signaled that debate on health care could further delay House action on highways.

“Nothing really changes until Ways and Means does their thing,” he said. “And they’re so wrapped up with the health-care bill; I don’t see it happening for a while.”

Noting the current extension carries through October, he said the House and Senate have “a month to debate what kind of extension we want and I think that’s where the debate is going to be.”

Transport Topics, 10/19/2009