State transportation leaders praise Congress for reauthorization accomplishments

News AASHTO July 29, 2005
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State transportation officials today praised House and Senate transportation leaders for producing a conference agreement on the highway and transit reauthorization bill and urged swift passage by the full House and Senate and signing by the president.

The new act sets total surface-transportation contract authority at $295 billion--a historic high--with guaranteed spending authority of $286.4 billion over six years (2004-2009), a 38% increase in guaranteed spending.

"The passage of this bill will be a day to remember for all of us who provide mobility to Americans," said Jack Lettiere, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO). "It’s been a long time coming, but the bill will accelerate needed transportation projects, save lives, improve people’s quality of life, create jobs and improve many ways we do business."

Lettiere particularly thanked House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) and ranking member James Oberstar (D-Minn.); House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.); Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.); Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and ranking member Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.); Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and ranking member Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and the staffs of those committees for their long hours and hard work in thrashing out workable compromises on the bill, H.R. 3.

When enacted, the new law will address a broad range of transportation issues ranging from safety to expediting environmental reviews.

The minimum state rate of return--the central issue to so-called "donor" states that send more tax revenue to the federal Highway Trust Fund than they ultimately receive--will rise from 90.5% in 2005, under the new act, to 92% in fiscal years 2008 and 2009.

The bill includes $22 billion in Congressionally designated projects, including $16 billion deemed high-priority and another $6.2 billion deemed projects of national and regional significance.

The measure preserves the all important funding guarantees and assures that if additional receipts become available they can be used for the highway program. It also includes significant innovative-financing provisions, such as:

• Authority for issuance of private-activity bonds;

• Improvements to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA); and

• Expansion of state infrastructure-bank provisions to all states.

Other provisions of the bill would provide for:

• Enhanced emphasis on safety via increased funding for data, research, safe routes to school, improvements to hazardous highway locations, rail-grade crossings and driver behavior programs;

• Increased investment in research and development with higher funding for the state planning and research program, university research, National Academy of Science's Cooperative Research Programs and a new Future Strategic Highway Research Program (FSHRP). Also included is funding for Centers of Transportation Excellence for State DOTs; and

• Greater flexibility for state DOTs to use federal funding for operational improvements and engineering, including eligibility for traffic management and user information for better operation of the nation’s roadways; enhanced eligibility in the bridge program; and enhanced flexibility in the use of design-build.

In the area of environmental provisions it also:

• Streamlines the project-development process for projects that require an environmental impact statement;

• Exempts projects with minimal effects on historic sites, parks, recreation areas and wildlife refuges from review with the concurrence of resource-agency officials and exempts the Interstate Highway System from designation as a historic site, with some qualifications;

• Sets a new 180-day statute of limitations for lawsuits challenging federal agencies’ approvals of highway and transit projects;

• Authorizes the delegation of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s environmental responsibilities regarding "categorical exclusions"; and

• Amends air-quality conformity requirements.

"Progress takes time, but this bill represents strong progress and we’re very pleased with it," said AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley. "With the certainty and funding this new law can provide, state transportation departments can finish out this construction season and plan with confidence for the next several years’ work."

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