US House eyes June for surface transportation reauthorisation(4)

The bill that will determine funding for much of the US’ surface transportation needs for the next six years has been delayed by the economic stimulus legislation but may go to the House as early as next month.

The US House of Representatives may give consideration to the reauthorisation of the surface transportation spending bill as early as next month, though no date has yet been announced for marking up the bill, which is currently being drafted.

“The plan at this point is to try to get the bill through the house by the end of June,” Jim Berard, communications director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in charge of the legislation, told InfrastructureInvestor.

Jim Oberstar

The bill will re-authorise and re-shape the 2005 surface transportation legislation known as SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users). SAFETEA-LU guaranteed funding for US highways, highway safety, and public transportation totaling $244.1 billion and is set to sunset with the end of the government’s current fiscal year on 30 September.

That figure represented the single largest investment in surface transportation in the US’ history. This year’s reauthorisation could top $450 billion, according to public statements by Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Berard said the committee has been delayed in its work on the reathorisation because of the stimulus funding. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, signed into law by president Obama three months ago, gave the US Department of Transportation $48 billion of infrastructure funding to rebuild roads, bridges, highways, airport runways, ports and transit projects.

We are going to completely restructure the Department of Transportation

Jim Oberstar

The scale of the reauthorisation bill has also made it a more time-intensive process.

“We’ve been bumping it back since March or April because of the sheer size of the bill that we’re dealing with. We’re not just taking the current reauthorisation and changing it,” Berard said. This year’s reauthorisation will include a number of new policies and “it takes time to build something new as opposed to putting a new coat of paint on something old”, Berard added.

Oberstar recently outlined the ambitious scale of the six-year reauthorisation legislation.

“We are going to completely restructure the Department of Transportation, restructure the Federal Highway Administration, compress the 108 categories of federal funding down into four formula programs, move from a highly prescriptive program to a performance-based program for surface transportation,” Oberstar said during a local TV station program in Minnesota on 1 May. Each formula program will have its own six-year budget and annual benchmarks for progress, he added.

Oberstar also envisions several new offices within the department of transportation.

“We need to create an office of intermodalism in the Department of Transportation to bring together all the several modal administrations. They haven’t met in forty years. We are going to make them do that and discuss a national strategic plan,” he said.

The private sector is hopeful the bill will contain measures friendly toward public-private partnerships (PPPs) and other forms of private investment in infrastructure. At last week’s Dow Jones Infrastructure Summit, John Flaherty, a principal at the Carlyle Group’s infrastructure fund, listed increased funding for the government’s TIFIA infrastructure credit program and Private Activity Bonds, a form of tax-exempt financing for infrastructure projects, among the things he would like to see in the bill.

“If those are not in this legislation, it is my view that the market won’t really develop for another three to four to five years,” Flaherty said.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has repeatedly expressed support for PPPs as an “out-of-the-box” idea for shoring up the US’ transportation finances. But Oberstar, who will play a key role in shaping the policies LaHood will ultimately enact, has been more skeptical.

“The Bush administration’s rush to embrace and promote PPPs and other innovative agreements may hurt future efforts to positively harness private investment and innovation for the public good,” he wrote to former transportation Secretary Mary Peters in a letter last November.

Regardless of how the legislation shapes up, Berard said the current hope is that the Senate can consider the bill between June and the beginning of the August recess, which lasts from close of business on 31 July to first week of September.

This would allow it to go to conference – the process of ironing out the differences between house and senate versions of a bill – sometime in September.

“[That’s] assuming we can stay to this schedule – no promises,” Berard added.