Six-month extension on TEA-21 reauthorization likely

We've been following the progress of the TEA-21 reauthorization for the past several months. The TEA-21 reauthorization is the Big One--it will determine federal transportation policy for the next six years. It will have a strong "trickle-down" effect on state and local policy as well, because federal funds--and so, federal policies--are behind so many state and local transportation projects.

The TEA-21 reauthorization is already behind schedule and the process has been losing ground rather than making it up. This article from SmartGrowthAmerica sums up what is likely to happen next:
The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee staff has spent the August recess working on a 6-month extension to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which expires on September 30.  This extension is expected to be "clean" which means it contains no policy changes, and will be attached to the transportation appropriations bill if it will be completed by the end of the month.   If not, the extension will probably be added to a continuing resolution, which will be needed to keep the government running while consideration of the appropriations bills can be completed.

House committee staff also say they still plan to release a "skeleton" reauthorization bill early in September, but no draft has been circulated and several major issues remain.  The most controversial issue is how to fund the increase in spending that is desired by the committee.  While Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) has been pushing a hike in the federal gas tax, the idea has met major resistance from House Republican Leaders and the White House.  Additionally, gas prices have hit a 13 year high making an increase in gas tax an even harder sell.

In the Senate, Sens. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have been working, very secretively, on a draft reauthorization bill.  Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, has said that the Republicans and Democrats have reached agreement on 95% of the issues.  However, the 5% where  concurrence is illusive includes efforts to streamline environmental review by limiting the reach of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), historic preservation review (known as 4(f)), and the time allotted for public input.  This is a very contentious issue and no progress has been made during the recess.  But a wonderful report showing how NEPA, 4(f), and public involvement have improved major transportation projects was released last week by the Sierra Club and the National Resource Defense Council.

The other issue holding the bill up, like in the House, is how to pay for it.  Gas tax increases are very unpopular with many Republicans and most Democrats, who don‚t want to be pinned as tax and spend liberals.  Bonding, or debt, options are unpopular with senators on both side of the isle who think the program should pay for itself.  How this will be resolved remains unclear.  Hopefully, more information will be readily available after Labor Day, when Congress reconvenes.

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