Boxer: No train automation extension without highway bill

Francis Rivera

Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerHispanic Caucus PAC looks to flex its muscles in 2016 Dems who sat out the sit-in offer array of reasons Senate honors Cleveland Cavs' NBA championship MORE (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that Senate Democrats will not go along with a Republican plan to extend a deadline for automating most of the nation's trains unless House GOP leaders pass a long-term highway bill.  

Railroads currently have until Dec. 31 to install an automated navigation system known as Positive Train Control (PTC), which regulates the speed and track movements of trains.

House Republicans have introduced legislation to extend the deadline until December 2018, but Boxer said Wednesday the Senate would only consider it if House Republicans pass a long-term highway bill this month. 

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"If they think that they are going to pull out their favorite issue, such as getting an extension for Positive Train Control on a short-term extension or as a stand-alone bill, they are wrong," she said during a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday. 

"I understand that many have argued that addressing the approaching PTC deadline is extremely critical, and failing to do so will have dramatic financial consequences," Boxer continued. "But, you know what? There are a lot of issues addressed in the DRIVE Act that are critically important and that have financial ramifications on this country."

Republicans have focused intently on the automated train deadline because several rail companies have warned they will shut down service in January 2016 to avoid fines if the deadline is not extended.

Boxer said it is "inexcusable" that the House has not shown the same urgency about passing a long-term highway bill, noting that an Oct. 29 deadline for the expiration of federal road funding is rapidly approaching. 

Boxer, who is the top ranking Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees transportation projects, noted the upper chamber has already passed a measure known as the DRIVE Act that contains three years' worth of guaranteed infrastructure funding

"More than two months ago, the Senate acted in a bipartisan fashion to pass a long-term transportation bill that increases funding for road, bridge, and transit projects," she said. "Now we are up against this deadline and what has the House done?"

Boxer and other Senate Democrats have pressured House Republicans to pass a six-year highway bill after they rejected the Senate's bill during the summer because it contained six years' worth of transportation commitments, but only three years' worth of funding. 

The House instead passed a three-month highway bill that is set to expire on Oct. 29, legislation the Senate was forced to accept to prevent an interruption in federal transportation spending. 

Boxer negotiated over the terms of the Senate's highway bill with the chamber's majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). She said she expected the House to have passed a transportation funding measure of its own by now since lawmakers have been back in Washington for a month following the August recess. 

"I had received assurances that the House would follow the lead of the Senate and introduce and pass a long-term transportation bill," Boxer said. "It has not done so. So I ask -- where is the House bill?" 

House Republicans have vowed to pass a long-term highway bill, but they have been sidetracked with a leadership election that became necessary when Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerIf 'bipartisanship' is now a dirty word, how about a rebranding? Cameras go dark during House Democrats' sit-in Rubio flies with Obama on Air Force One to Orlando MORE (R-Ohio) announced his retirement last month.

"We’re going to make sure we get the highway bill done," Boehner's likely replacement, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" last week, when asked how he would differ from the departing Boehner. 

Boxer said Wednesday that the House has to act quickly to prevent an interruption in federal transportation funding. 

"Short-term extensions prevent states from moving forward with any significant transportation projects," she said.  

"It is like going to a bank to get a mortgage to buy a house, but the bank would only agree to a six-month mortgage," Boxer continued. "There is no way someone would go ahead with making such a large investment without that long-term certainty that funding will be available when they need it." 

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has warned that it will have to begin cutting back on payments to states and local governments for infrastructure projects in November if Congress does not reach an agreement on a highway bill extension this month. 

Boxer said Wednesday transportation funding interruption would have catastrophic consequences.

"The federal government provides over 50 percent of the capital expenditures for state highway projects nationwide, which means that states and local governments rely heavily on federal funding to maintain and improve their transportation systems," she said. 

"Everyone knows we need a long-term, bipartisan, robust transportation bill, and nobody wants our bridges falling down.  But we need to see the House step up to the plate."