President signs short-term extension to transportation equity act: doubts persist that multi-year bill will be passed soon – Advocacy Update
On the heels of the historic vote to overturn an amendment that would have stripped some $600 million in guaranteed funding for the Transportation Enhancements program, actions now focus on the reauthorization process for the next cycle of the surface transportation program. The far-reaching, six-year Transportation Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) expired Sept. 30, but has been extended for five months to give Congress more time to authorize a long-term bill. While many hope for progress in a multi-year reauthorization, it is not at all certain that a satisfactory bill can pass.
The Transportation Enhancements (TE) program, a component of TEA-21, supports restoration of historic transportation facilities, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, landscape enhancements and beautification, among others. More than $600 million is available for TEs under current law. The Recreational Trails Program (RTP), also authorized by TEA-21, provides funds to develop and maintain recreational trails for motorized and non-motorized recreational trail users. RTP currently provides $50 million annually in recreation trails funding. NRPA and other advocates have proposed an increase on the premise that federal tax revenues for recreation and tourism fuel consumption are not reflected accurately.
The main sticking point for a comprehensive transportation funding bill is cost. The Bush administration’s bill would fund the act for six years at $247 billion. Congress’s draft is estimated at $355 billion. With growing deficits, a still weak economy and war costs, there is no agreed-upon source for the $100 billion difference. The most likely scenario would involve spending down the Transportation Trust Fund to unacceptable levels, or a high-stakes game to try to force an increase in the gas tax by as much as 8 cents per gallon.
Also under discussion is $60 billion in tax-credit bonds to add to the administration’s $247 billion proposal, making $310 billion available for transportation projects. The funds would be administered through a non-governmental, nonprofit entity. This level of funding would approach the Senate’s $311 billion proposed spending amount and could possibly be embraced by a majority.
Though bond proposals are gaining more attention, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members appear to be firmly behind a gas-tax indexing plan favored by Chair Don Young (R-Alaska). In any case, the bipartisan congressional spirit that has guided deliberations on reauthorization has dissipated. Some speculate that a frustrated House will advance a series of single-issue bills supported by special interests to force funding the entire package.
Added to this mix is the desire of the administration not to let the reauthorization, and a possible gas tax fight, get caught up in presidential election-year politics. Thus, some speculate that the five-mouth short-term extension will be followed by one or two additional short-term extensions, pushing back completion of any multi-year reauthorization for 18 months to two years. This would raise fears that TE projects might be threatened in some states, because the extension language allows the states great flexibility on which projects they fund.
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