Transportation advocates see little hope for pre-election long-term highway bill

Transportation advocates are losing hope for passage of a highway bill before the election following Congress's decision this week to pass another short-term funding extension.

Instead of approving the multi-year transportation bill that passed the Senate, lawmakers adopted a temporary extension of legislation that already funds road and transit projects. The short-term measure, signed Friday by President Obama, extends federal transportation funding until June 30. 

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Supporters of a longer transportation bill had hoped to avoid a ninth continuing resolution of the last multi-year highway legislation, which was originally scheduled to expire in 2009. But the GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate could not agree on a long-term measure before the Saturday deadline.

AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD) President Edward Wytkind told The Hill he does not see the political dynamic changing before the extension expires in 90 days. 

"We're hedging our bets that the House is going to get anything done, so I went out and got a lotto ticket and I'm publicly announcing that I'll donate any winnings to transportation," Wytkind said on Friday, ahead of the popular Mega Millions drawing. "That may be our best hope for transportation policy at this point, at least for the next couple of weeks." 

Supporters of a long-term transportation measure argue highway funding is not as simple as extending previous appropriations, such as when Congress passed 22 extensions of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration before approving a multi-year bill for the agency this year. 

The Congressional Budget Office projected earlier this year that there could be a bankruptcy as early as 2014 in the federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides money for transportation with revenue collected from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax. 

In March, the Senate passed a $109 billion bill that would have provided funding for transportation for the next two years. The House had sought to pass a five-year, $260 billion version of the bill, but the Republican-led lower chamber's measure was opposed by members of the House GOP caucus for spending more than the revenue that is generated by the gas tax. 

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has identified the transportation bill as a top legislative priority this year, and said he hoped lawmakers in the House would pass the multi-year version of the measure before the 90-day extension runs out. 

"We expect that after this 90-day extension, that when we get back, we will move quickly to move a highway bill with our energy initiatives and ship it over to the United States Senate," Boehner said during a news conference. 

"We are working on putting together the final touches on that bill, and it will be ready when we get back," he said. 

Wytkind said the Senate version of the transportation bill would have given Congress a way to avoid a repeat of the contentious negotiations on the temporary extension they passed this week through 2013. 

"We're going to be pounding away during the recess to get House members to know they've got to check their party at the door," Wytkind said of Republicans in the House who opposed accepting the Senate's transportation bill. 

Other transportation supporters were similarly pessimistic. U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director of transportation and infrastructure Janet Kavinoky said the 90-day extension could lead to a longer agreement, but only if lawmakers get right back to work after the two-week recess. 

“No length of time is going to be good for construction or business, but at least 90 days provides a length of time Congress could get a long-term bill done,” Kavinoky said. “But the House in particular is going to have their nose to the grindstone, or whatever metaphor you want to use, to get a bill off the House floor and into a conference.” 

If not, Kavinoky said Congress is likely to approve a temporary extension of highway funding until after the election.  

“That means leaving the problem for the lame-duck session, and that’s already going to have a full agenda with tax extenders and sequestration cuts,” she said, noting the projections about the Highway Trust Fund. 

“There’s a real deadline at work here,” Kavinoky continued. “There’s a whole list of things Congress is going to have to deal with in a lame duck. I really don’t think they want to have a transportation bill sitting on their desk, too.  

Kavinoky said she was “holding out hope” lawmakers could get to a conference this year and, like Wytkind, said her organization would be campaigning for lawmakers to support the transportation measure over the congressional recess. 

Other transportation supporters said in the aftermath of the transportation extension that they were just happy to have averted an interruption of funding that would have begun in earnest on Saturday if Congress had not approved at least a temporary agreement. 

“While we are disappointed that Congress was unable to pass a transportation bill before the end of the current extension, the [continuing resolution] will at least prevent a disruption of the federal transportation program and ensure millions of Americans continue to work by building and repairing our roads, bridges, and transit systems," Transportation for America Director James Corless said in a statement this week. 

However, Corless also added that his group is urging House leaders to "reach across the aisle to create a bipartisan measure that can find the broad support typical of past transportation bills as well as the Senate’s current bill.”

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