At long last, as of August 10, 2005, Congress has approved and the President has signed a transportation re-authorization bill to succeed TEA 21, the last 6 –year federal transportation bill enacted in 1998. The law was approved by Congress on July 29th and signed into law by the President August 10th at a special ceremony at the Caterpillar plant near Chicago.
The bill, H.R. 3, is called the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, SAFETEA-LU. Even the name is a compromise. The Administration and Senate had originally called their proposed bills SAFETEA, while the House called their, bill TEA-LU.
It has taken almost 2 years and 12 temporary extensions of TEA 21 to realize the new law, SAFETEA-LU. TEA 21 Expired September 30, 2003. It has taken so long that the new law is essentially a 5 year rather than 6 year Act for fiscal years 2005 through 2009. The total amount of guaranteed funds over the 5 years from fiscal year 2005-2009 is $244.1 billion. If fiscal year 2004 were included, the total six-year funding level would have been $286.4 billion. Of this amount, 79% is provided for highway programs, 18.5% is provided for transit and the remaining 2.5% for other programs.
Detailed analyses of the Act’s provisions are found on the website of the American Highway User’s Alliance at www.highways.org , on the FHWA site at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/reauthorization/index.htm and on the American Public Works Associations’ site at www.apwa.net
Most observers are lauding the new bill as an important step toward improving transportation conditions in the US. But, like anything that Congress does, there is good news and bad news.
On the up side, the law provides a large enough increase in dollars for transportation programs, that it may actually represent a real increase in funding, after consideration of inflation in the costs of construction and the costs of new programs included in the law. For Ohio the funding level is about a 36% increase in average annual funding $’s over the level represented by TEA-21. Ohio’s rate of return on its contributions to the Federal Highway Trust Fund slowly increases to 92% by 2008 from the present level of 90.5%. It’s less than Ohio was asking for, an immediate increase to 95% return, but, it is sufficient to fund Governor Taft’s “Jobs and Progress” plan.
On the down side, the law provides a lot less funding than highway experts have said would be necessary to reverse the downward trend in road conditions and congestion. "Given the inadequate top line, it's a pretty decent bill,'' said Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on highways. He was one of many lawmakers who had sought significantly higher spending. And then there’s the pork. The bill contains a new record of over $21 billion for over 6000 earmarked projects. Most Congressmen and Senators take pride in pointing to the projects they have earmarked for their home districts and are generally congratulated for it. According to Michelle Holdgreve, ODOT Deputy Director for Legislative Services, ODOT is pleased with its treatment under the bill. Most of the earmarked projects are good projects and Senators Voinovich and DeWine obtained $95 million for projects above the state’s allocation.
Lists of the earmarked projects are posted on the House Rules Committee website at http://www.house.gov/rules/109textTEALU.htm Ohio is also designated as a pilot state for streamlined environmental regulations covered in the act.
When you look at the massive size of the bill, some 1600 pages, and the amount of detail in it, it’s little wonder that it took so long to come to agreement on the bill. To get a sense of how difficult the law making process is, read the letters from Transportation Secretary Mineta to the House and Senate leadership with the administration’s reactions to provisions of the bill. These letters are posted on the FHWA website page: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/reauthorization/conference.htm
The eighth temporary extension of the federal transportation act expires July 19th. Reports out of Washington indicate that House and Senate conferees are close to reaching agreement on the final language for the six-year transportation reauthorization act. The total amount of $286.4 billion has apparently been agreed upon by the conferees and administration. There is an indication that states will be guaranteed a 92% rate of return, far short of the 95% sought by donor states. The conferees are expected to have a conference report completed by July 22 and ready to go to the President before Congress leaves for a one-month recess July 29th. This timeline will necessitate a ninth temporary extension to keep transportation programs going until July 29th.