Highway bill extension clears Senate committee

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But at a bare minimum, they want to see the highway bill extended before it expires Sept. 30. After the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration last month over a normally routine extension and the large fight over raising the federal debt ceiling, many transportation supporters feared the gas tax would be the next standoff between Democrats and Republican in Congress.

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee both praised Thursday's vote.

“Failing to extend this law would jeopardize hundreds of thousands of construction jobs at a time when unemployment in the industry remains sky high," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said in a statement released by his office.  
 
“The American people didn’t send us here to make unemployment worse and allow our roads to crumble—and that’s why we must act swiftly to extend this law," he continued. "Instead of putting up roadblocks to this extension, I hope our colleagues will work with us to fix the economy, help Americans get back to work and keep our country moving forward. Once we have passed this short-term fix, we need to complete work on a long-term bill that strengthens investment in our national transportation network to create jobs, maintain our roads and bridges, and invest in rail and transit to ease commutes.”

The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. James Infohe (R-Okla.), said it was essential the current funding at least be extended, too.

"Passing the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012 is essential," he said in a statement. "It's a no-brainer." 

Infohe also made the case for Congress also approving the long-term extension of the highway bill that has been proposed by the Senate.

"What matters is passing a two-year bill," he said. "If we fail to enact an extension prior to the end of this fiscal year, thousands of highway projects will be at risk of being stopped in their tracks, which would threaten tens of thousands of jobs. We've passed seven highway extensions since the last highway bill expired in 2009. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this extension."

Outside transportation advocates also praised the Senate committee vote Thursday. AAA President Robert Darbelnet in a statement said Boxer and Infohe should be praised for working together on extending the highway bill.

“Congress must not fail in swiftly delivering this measure to the President before the program expires on September 30, 2011," he said. "Failure by Congress to act would ultimately impact transportation safety, mobility, and emergency response operations, would threaten our national economic competitiveness, as well as jeopardize thousands of jobs across the country."

However, Darbelnet also said Congress should pass a long-term highway bill.

"Beyond the short-term extension, both parties must also continue to work towards a long overdue multi-year highway and transit bill in the same spirit of cooperation," he said.  "We expect the President to encourage this important next step in his address to Congress tonight.

"The time is now for Congress and the White House to take bipartisan action and deliver on a transportation bill that makes America stronger and keeps the economy, and the American people, moving into the future,” he continued.

The House has not yet introduced a short-term extension of the highway bill, but its Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) has recently indicated he is willing to work with Democrats on crafting an extension.

Mica had previously said lawmakers should not pass any more short-term highway bill extensions.

The 2003 highway bill, which has been extended since expiring in fall 2009, spent about $41 billion per year on transportation projects.

The proposed House measure would limit spending to about $35 billion, which is close to what the federal gas tax brings in annually, while the Senate would adjust that figure for inflation, raising the annual spending to $54 billion.