WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate and House are moving toward a showdown over a must-pass transportation bill this week. If they don't reach an agreement by Friday, the government will be forced to halt highway aid payments to states in the middle of the summer construction season.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is pushing for passage of a sweeping, $350 billion transportation bill that would set highway, transit and rail policy for the next six years, although the bill only includes financing for the first three years. GOP leaders in the House, who say they need more time to work on a long-term bill, already have passed a five-month, $8 billion extension of current programs.
Some highlights of the Senate bill:
The bill shores up the federal Highway Trust Fund for three years by using about $45 billion in revenue increases and making spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. The largest source of funds is $16 billion that would be saved by reducing the dividend rate the government pays to large banks. Another $9 billion would come from the proposed sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over 10 years, but that assumes the price of oil will be $89 a barrel — nearly twice the current price.
The bill also attempts to speed up environmental reviews of construction projects, and encourages states to impose user fees on electric vehicles because they use roadways but don't contribute to federal gas tax revenues. It also sets aside money for major projects, and directs highway aid to major freight transportation corridors, starting with $1.5 billion in fiscal 2016 and increasing to $2.5 billion in 2021.
AUTO AND HIGHWAY SAFETY
The safety provisions are the most controversial transportation part of the bill both for what they include and what they don't include. The bill requires that rental car agencies fix cars subject to safety recalls before renting them, but it doesn't include language sought by safety advocates requiring car dealers to fix recalled used cars before selling them. It would double the amount the government can fine automakers who don't disclose safety defects from $35 million to $70 million — significantly less than the $300 million sought by the White House. It would force the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to conceal from the public its safety ratings of trucking companies; the trucking industry says the agency's methodology is flawed. And it would establish a pilot program to allow as many as 12 states to lower the age for interstate truck drivers from 21 to 18. The trucking industry says lowering the age will help remedy a shortage of drivers.
An effort by Democrats to add criminal penalties for auto company officials who knowingly conceal safety defects from the government was unsuccessful.
The bill authorizes an average $1.65 billion a year for Amtrak over the next four years. Another $570 million in grants each year could be used to improve service and eliminate rail congestion in the railroad's busy Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington. It streamlines environmental and historic preservation permitting requirements.
It also contains two controversial rail safety provisions: One would require the government to conduct field tests of more advanced train brakes before implementing a requirement that railroads install them on trains that haul volatile crude oil. The other indefinitely delays a deadline for railroads to get government certification and put into operation technology that can automatically stop or slow trains to prevent crashes. The National Transportation Safety Board has said that if the technology had been in operation it could have prevented an Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in May that killed eight people and injured about 200 others.
The bill increases annual funding for transit aid by about 25 percent — or more than $2 billion — over six years. It includes a 12 percent increase, or $262 million, in fiscal year 2016 to allow public transit agencies with rail systems to address pressing repair needs. It streamlines a grant program for innovative projects, and increases funding for rural areas by $105 million.
The American Public Transit Association said the authorized increases are still significantly less than the agency had sought, and expressed concern that the money attached to the bill might not be enough to cover even three years of the authorized spending.