On their way to work

As Congress rolls up its sleeves, industry associations push for $375 billion highway bill

Article January 16, 2004
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The American Road & Transportation Builders Association
(ARTBA) is hoping members of Congress will do some reading off the train.

A new ad campaign is urging the House and Senate to support
the $375 billion, six-year highway funding bill--the Transportation Equity
Act: A Legacy of Users (TEA-LU). Three-panel billboards were placed at Metro
stop Capitol South and Union Station when lawmakers returned to work on Jan.
20.

“We’re putting the full-court press on,”
Matt Jeanneret, director of public affairs for ARTBA, told ROADS & BRIDGES.
“The most important thing this year is to pass a meaningful bill in
2004.”

But the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for
the 21st Century (TEA-21) stands behind an omnibus appropriations bill and the
energy bill. Both must be passed before the new highway fiscal plan, and debate
on both measures appeared to be imminent at press time. Currently, federal
highway and transit programs are running on an extension that expires on Feb.
29.

The $820 billion omnibus appropriations bill faced criticism
on several fronts. Conservatives objected to the fact that the bill exceeded
the figure called for in the FY 2004 budget resolution, while Democrats
complained that they were largely excluded from the negotiations on the omnibus
measure. Members of both parties were angered by action to include concessions
to the White House that ran contrary to action taken by Congress.

Senate Majority Leader William Frist (R-Tenn.) postponed
action on the bill until after the holiday recess, and if the Senate does not
clear a conference agreement the bill may be sent back to the negotiations
table. Reopening the bill could mean reductions in transportation funding.

At stake in the energy bill is the transfer of the
2.5-cents-per-gal tax on ethanol-blended fuels to the Highway Trust Fund and
the replacement of the 5.2-cent tax exemption.

“The promise on (the energy bill) was it would be
addressed and resolved to the liking of the industry in the highway
bill,” said Jeanneret. “The 2.5 cents is something that has broad
support on Capitol Hill. The issue is how you deal with the 5.2 cents.
Resolving those issues has impact on the overall funding levels that would be
in the next reauthorization bill.”

Then there’s the issue of compromise between the three
versions of the next long-term highway bill. The Bush
administration’s 
“Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act
of 2003” (SAFETEA), a $311 billion Senate version and TEA-LU cover a wide
spectrum of funding possibilities. Before the holiday recess, Speaker of the
House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) expressed the need for a six-year, $350 billion
bill.

Whatever deal is struck action must be taken during the
first half of the election year before members of Congress hit the campaign
trail.

To complement print and radio ads, ARTBA held a “Call
Congress Day” on Jan. 21 and its Legislative Conference Feb. 23-24. ARTBA
and the Associated General Contractors of America will host a Transportation
Construction Coalition Fly-In Feb. 24-25 in Washington, D.C. For more
information, contact ARTBA at 202/289-4434.

About the author: 
Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges.
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