Highways, Bridges and Roads

Winners and losers in highway battle

Transportation advocates breathed a sigh of relief last week when Congress approved the first long-term highway bill in seven years.

The measure, approved Friday in the House and Senate, will spend $105 billion on road and transit projects through 2014, providing a measure of certainty to industry and state and local governments after a long run of temporary funding extensions.

The bill also gives Democrats and Republicans a piece of jobs legislation to tout on the campaign trail, and takes the issue out of the mix for the busy lame-duck session after the election.

Here are a few winners and losers of the contentious negotiations.


Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.): Serving what could be his last term as chairman of the House Infrastructure Committee, Mica was criticized after House Republicans failed to rally around a $260 billion highway proposal that would have tied transportation spending to domestic oil drilling. While naysayers were declaring the highway talks dead and over, Mica insisted there was still time for a deal — and that unflagging optimism was rewarded with a legislative victory that could boost his chances in the August primary against Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.).

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.): Boxer was selected as chairwoman of the 47-member conference committee because Republicans led the last round of bicameral transportation talks in 2005. The chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works had to balance vastly different approaches to transit funding in an election year fraught with partisan tension. Her weekly press conferences helped keep the talks on track, as did her unlikely partnership with Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Public Works Committee. 

U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO: The business lobby and the labor federation rarely see eye to eye, but agreed that passage of a long-term highway bill was long overdue. Supporters of a long-term agreement often cited the strange bedfellows when making the case for bipartisan action.


TransCanda Corp.: Republicans pushed for approval of TransCanda’s Keystone XL pipeline in the highway package, setting up another legislative showdown on the controversial oil sands project. But in the end, they dealt the pipeline provision away in return from concessions from Democrats that will allow states to opt out of bike and pedestrian programs and shorten the environmental review process for construction.

Bike/pedestrian advocates: The groups feared that senators might deal away provisions that encouraged states to spend money on bike and pedestrian programs — and they were right to worry. The final compromise allows states to opt out of half of the bike and pedestrian money in the bill, with the other half going directly to local entities. Democrats put on a brave face and said the opt-out provision gives more control to local governments, but it was clear to bike and pedestrian fans that they had been rolled over in the negotiations.

Public transit groups: Public transportation advocates howled when the original House proposal for transportation eliminated a dedicated revenue source for mass transit systems. Republicans backed off that proposal, but did not relent when transit groups pushed to allow money for capital construction projects to be used as an offset against fare increases. The final transportation bill also did not restore an expanded tax benefit for commuters from the 2009 stimulus law.

Club for Growth and Heritage Action: The leading conservative groups tried to mobilize opposition to the final bill, decrying it as a spending increase that would dole out $15 billion more than the revenue from the gas tax. But staunch conservatives such as Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) told The Hill they were voting ‘yes’ because people in their districts needed jobs. In the end, the measure won an overwhelming 373 votes in the House and 74 in the Senate


Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): The Speaker identified the highway bill as one of his top priorities at the beginning of the year, but the final deal is nothing like the five-year, $260 billion measure he put forward in February. Gone is the link to increased oil drilling, crafted as gas prices hovered around $4 per gallon, as is a provision mandating construction of Keystone.

Despite the defeat of his favored proposal, Boehner played a key role in moving the final package over the finish line. With less than two weeks to go in the talks, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) met personally with Boxer and Mica and urged them to “redouble” their efforts. The involvement of congressional leaders reinvigorated the negotiations, and helped secure passage of a bill that serves as a strong rejoinder to President Obama’s arguments about a “do-nothing” Congress.

Tags Barbara Boxer Boehner Harry Reid James Inhofe John Boehner
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