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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

House, Senate committees take up long-term surface transportation bills


Today, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committees are scheduled to mark up major transportation legislation.

Both bills are a reflection of the major differences between House Republicans and Senate Democrats over how to fund the nation’s transportation programs.

On the House side, Republicans on Tuesday unveiled the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act,” a $260 billion bill that proposes to fund transportation programs over five years.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today began considering amendments to the bill, which likely will include an amendment to address provisions that would allow states to increase truck weight and size limits. Those provisions are strongly opposed by a coalition of stakeholders, including the Association of American Railroads.

According to various rail industry-related associations, the House bill’s other provisions of interest include: eliminating the congestion grant program; streamlining the environmental review process for transportation projects; cutting by 25 percent Amtrak’s authorized funding levels; requiring Amtrak to contract out its food service program; increasing the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program from $122 million to $1 billion per year; enhancing the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program to make it more efficient and predictable; and extending the positive train control implementation deadline from 2015’s end to Dec. 31, 2020.

On the Senate side, the Banking Committee is scheduled to mark up the “Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012,” a two-year reauthorization and reform of federal public transportation programs. The committee is responsible for authorizing the transit portion of the federal surface transportation programs, including urban mass transit and rural bus transit systems.

“The new [Senate] bill eliminates earmarks while maintaining current funding levels, improves safety oversight and streamlines the construction of public transportation projects,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who chairs the committee, in a prepared statement.

Whether Congress will be able to overcome partisan political differences to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill this year is a big issue, said Chuck Baker, president of the National Railroad Construction & Maintenance Association Inc., and a partner at government affairs firm Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell L.L.C.

“There are some very big issues to be sorted out, with the highest profile ones being how to pay for the bill and how long the bill should be,” Baker said, referring to the House’s five-year, $260 billion bill, and the Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill.

In addition, House Republicans have called for using new fees on expanded oil drilling to help fund transportation programs — an idea that Democratic leaders already have dismissed as a nonstarter.

Still, there are many influential stakeholders — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labor unions and transportation industry groups — that are clamoring for long-term transportation funding legislation, said Baker.

“There are still very, very meaningful hurdles to overcome,” he said. “But, there is actually bipartisan agreement that we at least want a bill. There is a lot of pressure [on Congress] to get a bill done.”

— Julie Sneider

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 2/2/2012