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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

House passes first long-term transportation bill in a decade


The U.S. House yesterday morning passed a six-year surface transportation reauthorization and reform bill that calls for more than $300 billion in federal funding for highway, transit and rail programs. If approved by the full Congress and signed by President Obama, the bill would become the first long-term transportation law passed since 2005.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 (the STRR Act) was approved by a vote of 363 to 64. It was introduced by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.), and Highways and Transit Subcommittee Ranking Member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

"The STRR Act provides strong reforms and policies to help us improve America's transportation system, and now we can get to work on resolving the differences with the Senate bill and carry a final measure over the goal line," Shuster said in a press release.

By yesterday afternoon, House lawmakers had appointed 16 Republicans and 12 Democrats — including Shuster and DeFazio — to negotiate differences with the Senate's version of a transportation bill, which passed this summer. Congress has until Nov. 20 to act, as that's the date the latest short-term extension of the MAP-21 legislation expires.

Some industry and labor leaders offered praised for the House's action on bipartisan legislation, although some expressed disappointment that the bill didn't offer a higher level of investment in the nation's aging transportation infrastructure. Although the legislation is a six-year bill, it provides three years of funding.

Michael Melaniphy, president and chief executive officer of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), said his organization is "encouraged" by the House vote on the bill, but will continue to work toward ensuring federal funding covers all six years.

"Members of both the House and the Senate need to find adequate funding to meet past state-of-good repair needs ($86 billion), as well as current and future capital needs," Melaniphy said.

A last-minute amendment to the bill added billions in additional funding, which could potentially provide enough to fully fund the six years, according to APTA's Legislative Alert newsletter.

Transportation Trades Department (AFL-CIO) President Edward Wytkind expressed a similar sentiment.

"We hope that as the House and Senate work together in conference, more revenues will be found to significantly boost transit, highway and bridge investments," Wytkind said.

The bill's passage followed extended floor action on Tuesday and Wednesday to process more than 100 proposed amendments. Among them was a measure opposed by the freight railroad industry that would have increased the weight limit on trucks traveling on the nation's highways from the current 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds. That amendment was rejected.

Action on amendments of interest to transit and passenger-rail advocates included:
• Passage of a measure to restore an 80/20 federal-state match and increase local flexibility for key transit programs used to build new light-rail, commuter-rail and streetcar systems.
• Rejection of a proposed measure that would have banned federal investment in streetcar projects.
• Rejection of an amendment that would have terminated the Mass Transit Account in the Highway Trust Fund, and devolved federal highway and transit programs to the states.
• Rejection of an amendment that would have required New Start, Small Start or Core Capacity grant recipients to have a one-to-one, assets-to-liabilities ratio.

Also, a proposal to raise the federal gas tax was blocked.