Senate committee passes highway funding extension

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has passed an extension to existing US surface transportation legislation. If the extension clears Congress, it will maintain current transportation funding levels through January 2012.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has passed a bill to extend existing US surface transportation legislation, which is set to expire on September 30, through to January 2012.

If the extension successfully clears the full Senate and the House, it will mark the eighth time that Congress has used a short-term bill to prop up the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), which was signed into law in 2005. SAFETEA-LU governs spending on interstate highways, freight rail, and other transportation systems.

The extension would maintain current transportation spending levels through to January 31, 2012, according to a statement from Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer said the extension had passed the Committee by unanimous vote.

Last week, President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass a “clean” extension to surface transportation legislation. Obama criticised Congress for allowing a similar extension for funding of the Federal Aviation Administration to lapse for about two weeks this summer, causing thousands of workers to go on furlough and delaying essential construction projects.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica, a Florida Republican, has previously said he disapproves of passing further short-term extensions to SAFETEA-LU, which initially expired in 2009. But in a statement following Obama’s speech last week, Mica said he would be willing to consider one further extension.

Mica has not yet decided whether to support the particular extension passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee, though he is still open to passing an eighth extension, according to a spokesperson. The House has not yet introduced any bill to extend SAFETEA-LU, the spokesperson said.

In July, Mica and Boxer introduced opposing proposals for a long-term reauthorisation of SAFETEA-LU. Boxer announced a proposal that would provide $109 billion in surface transportation funding over two years, while Mica introduced a plan that includes about $230 billion over six years, and argued that a two-year plan would not provide states with sufficiently stable federal revenues to plan long-term projects.

In a statement, Mica said House Republicans would be interested in working together with Obama and Congressional Democrats to reauthorise current transportation legislation, but he also blamed Democrats for having “neglected aviation legislation for more than four years and left major transportation legislation in the ditch for more than a year”.

Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said passing the extension was a “no-brainer”, but criticised Obama for emphasising infrastructure spending while not proposing a detailed highway bill to Congress. 

In a statement, Inhofe said Obama has “talked more about infrastructure than any other President since Eisenhower proposed the interstate system, but he has done substantially less than any other President”.