Friday, March 09, 2012

House may ponder Senate surface transport bill

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Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday suggested the House majority might consider the Senate version of a surface transportation bill, following the collapse of support (even among many Republicans) for the $260 billion House version.

The Senate's version of a five-year renewal is deemed by many, including those in the rail industry, as more evenly applied to various surface transport modes, including rail, as opposed to the House version, which focused on highways and auto-related items almost exclusively.

Rail industry interests blanketed congressional offices Thursday as part of Railroad Day on Capitol Hill, in a coordinated effort to highlight freight and passenger rail's viability and importance to the nation's infrastructure and transport flexibility. Numerous groups, including the Railway Supply Institute and the American Public Transportation Association, had expressed alarm at the House's proposal for surface transportation funding.

"The current plan is to see what the Senate can produce and to bring their bill up," Boehner said at a news conference. "In the meantime, we're going to continue to have conversations with members about a longer-term approach, which most of our members want. But at this point in time, the plan is to bring up the Senate bill or something like it."

The more modest Senate bill advances a two-year, $109 billion plan that encompasses much more modal choices, including provisions allowing states to direct some of their funding portions to specific projects as they see fit, regardless of mode and/or involving multiple modes. It also would detach any link between any surface transportation bill and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project from Canada to Texas, a key political point to many Republicans which the Senate rejected Thursday as a standalone item.

The House version dissatisfied varied interests, from fiscally conservative Republicans objecting to the funding levels to Democrats and suburban-district Republicans dismayed by the termination of dedicated funding for public transit projects.

Current funding for road and rail construction projects expires at the end of this month, which could affect construction workers currently employed and in essence become a hot-button political issue for both parties during this election year.

"We're not going to let March 31 go by and experience any kind of a shutdown, vowed Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastrcture Committee. "That is not an option under consideration." Failing passage of the Senate bill, however, yet another temporary extension is a possibility.