Lawmakers in House and Senate exhale after heavy lift on transportation bill

Lawmakers and transportation advocates breathed a sigh of relief on Friday after passage of the first multi-year transportation bill in seven years.

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The House and Senate on Friday both approved a bill to spend $105 billion on road and transit projects over the next two years. The passage of the measure averted a 10th extension of a highway bill that was initially supposed to expire in 2009.

The long road that led to the agreement between the chambers was not lost on the chief architects of the new legislation.

"It is good to be at this point in the completion of a long-overdue transportation reform bill. A lot of people said it couldn't be done," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said of the effort, which stretched three years and two sets of transportation committee chairmen in the House.

“It’s not lost on any of us that this is an election year," he told reporters after the House vote. "But we’ve got responsibilities that are bigger than an election.” 

The House voted 373-52 to approve the transportation bill.

Mica’s counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), agreed with his assestment shortly after the Senate passed the measure on a 74-19 vote of its own.

“It has been a very long and winding road to get to this place,” Boxer said. “I think it sends a tremendous signal to the people of America, and that is that we can work together.” 

Negotiations on the transportation bill were thought to be at a dead end as recently as a week ago. 
To avoid a permanent stalemate, House Republicans dropped demands for mandating the authorization of the controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and loosening regulations on coal ash. In return, Senate Democrats agreed to streamline environmental permitting of transportation projects and allow states to opt out of bike and pedestrian programs.

Many House Democrats fought tooth and nail against the provisions Republican leaders in the House insisted on including in the compromise. But even they said the passage of a new multi-year was a big deal.

“This is a 27-month bill. It's the best we could get with the money we could find,” Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) told The Hill.

There was not as much money to find as there had been for transportation bills in the past, however. The last highway bill, which was signed into law in 2005 by former President George W. Bush, lasted four years and spent $244 billion on road and transit projects.

Some observers have said Congress is more partisan than it was then. It is indisputably more divided — Republicans controlled both chambers and the White House when a transportation bill was last passed. 

The new bill adjusts the annual spending amounts of the 2005 legislation for inflation. But instead of lasting four years, it runs only through the end of fiscal year 2014.

Transportation advocates still heralded the passage of something other than a temporary extension.

“Nearly three years after SAFETEA-LU expired, we are pleased that an agreement has been reached on national transportation policy,” the General Contractors Association of New York said in a statement of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users.

“Finally some certainty can be provided regarding the federal commitment for the next two years of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Capital Programs," the GCA NY continued.

Some transportation groups in Washington noted the transportation bill was not as robust as previous iterations.

“We view this bill — as we believe congressional leaders do — as just step one, which is making the significant program and policy reforms needed to restore public confidence in how the federal government is investing their money in transportation and mobility,” American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) President Pete Ruane said in a news release as the highway bill was being voted on.

“Step two is coming to grips with how to fund the nation’s investments in transportation infrastructure and mobility over the longer term,” he continued. “That tough job remains. And it will require the same bipartisan, bicameral leadership and cooperation that was ultimately demonstrated on this bill.”   

Boxer acknowledged the respite from the fight about transportation funding would be short-lived.

“After we get our breath back, we’re going to sit down and look at a long-term solution,” she said after the final vote. “We know that the receipts from the gas tax are going down.”  

But other lawmakers were focused on celebrating a rare bipartisan agreement, and an even more rare long-term transportation bill.

“I hope people realize what a significant victory this is, with the political quagmire we are in,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said. “Up until a few weeks ago, people around here were saying it was never going to happen.”  

The transportation bill will have to be signed now by President Obama, who has campaigned against Congress for not approving new road and transit spending and other parts of his jobs proposals for the better part of a year.

Obama is expected to quickly sign the bill to avert an interruption in transportation funding.

This post was updated with new information at 4:45 p.m.

—Mike Lillis contributed to this report.