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Lawmakers Face Transportation Issues, Pressure for Action on Long-Term Legislation

Even during a long August recess, some members of Congress and their staffers are facing questions about how to improve the surface transportation system and what lawmakers will do when they return to Washington in September.

Part of that interest is spurred by actions of state officials such as Gov. Bill Haslam in Tennessee to assess public interest in tackling a multi-billion-dollar backlog of projects, and by news coverage of a new report showing how roadway congestion is worsening across the nation.

Part of it also comes from the pressure of the calendar, plus promises leaders of Congress have made to try to complete a long-term highway/transit/rail bill before the latest extension of the Highway Trust Fund expires Oct. 29, and a new push by project investment advocates.

Soon after Congress returns, lawmakers have said they expect the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to unveil its version of a long-term authorization bill. That would be a big first toward getting one through the full House and then to a conference with the Senate over the version it passed July 30.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee that took the lead on the Senate bill and wrote its highway program section, told The Oklahoman newspaper Aug. 25 that he has been talking with T&I Chairman Shuster and described the House chairman as "very excited" about the Senate's action.

Inhofe said Shuster "likes our bill" and is working on one the senator said will be "very similar." In that interview, which the newspaper showed in video form as well as in a print-edition story, Inhofe emphasized the Senate version includes environmental planning provisions designed to speed infrastructure projects.

A detailed analysis of the Senate's proposed "DRIVE Act," prepared by staff at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, lists a number of streamlining provisions.

The streamlining provisions include establishing at the U.S. Department of Transportation a new Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Center to help move projects faster through federal agency permit processes, and a separate steering council to oversee environmental reviews for big-ticket projects over $200 million.

The measure would also require annual inflation indexing of projects with little federal financing that receive exclusions from certain environmental review requirements so that the value of that reform does not degrade over time.

But the analysis also says some DRIVE Act provisions could put added burdens onto state departments of transportation while others could actually slow some projects down.

Preparing a House bill for what appears is shaping up to be a busy fall session of Congress will require a lot of work by staff and members at both T&I and the Ways and Means Committee that would have to approve a long-term financing package.

So starting Aug. 25 the Transportation Construction Coalition - a group of construction business groups and unions - began running radio ads in the districts of 16 majority Republicans from those two committees to stress "the importance of fixing the Highway Trust Fund and passing a multi-year highway and public transit investment bill."

One of them targets Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., with a message reminding his state's voters how big a share of Wisconsin highway funding comes from the federal program.

"About 55 percent of Wisconsin's annual capital investment in highways and bridges depends on federal funding," the ad says. "But Congress has not yet passed a long-term highway bill. That puts our funding at risk and hurts our state's ability to plan mobility and safety improvements. Tell Congressman Paul Ryan it's time for the House of Representatives to get a long-term highway bill passed now. Wisconsin depends on it."

The 30-second radio spots are also aimed at another eight Ways and Means members, plus seven T&I Republicans. The coalition said it would run them for two weeks on hometown stations of the 16 House members.

The group said this was just the latest series of ads it has run to "to pressure Congress into action." It also ran TV, radio and digital ads in June as a July trust fund deadline approached, it said.

And this round may not be the last, as the announcement added that "coalition officials say they will continue with advertising and grassroots outreach until the House of Representatives passes a multiyear surface transportation bill."

Source: AASHTO