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With road ending for highway law, Congress tackles new blueprint

WASHINGTON — Congress on Wednesday plans to begin heading down one of its longest, most winding and most-lobbied roads as it begins to rewrite how highway and transit programs will be planned, built and funded for the next six years.

Lawmakers face two tough deadlines: Current law governing highway and transit programs expires Sept. 30, and the Transportation Department has estimated that the Highway Trust Fund, which helps pay for the projects, will run out of money in mid-to-late August.

The effort to fix these problems begins with unusual bipartisan agreement, but also with some resistance from the Obama administration.

Top Transportation Committee members in the House of Representatives have agreed on their vision for the next six years and are pushing an ambitious blueprint that would cost $500 billion. That's the bill the highways and transit subcommittee will take up Wednesday, aiming to bring it before the full House for a vote next month.

The plan would consolidate or end more than 75 programs and streamline the system of distributing highway money.

Among the initiatives: Providing more funds to the nation's largest metropolitan areas to relieve congestion; giving special attention to "projects of national significance" that aid movement of goods and freight; and developing 11 high-speed rail corridors linking major metropolitan areas.

The bill also would create an Office of Livability to promote alternatives such as walking or bicycling, and a National Infrastructure Bank to provide grants and credit assistance for various transportation projects.

So far, the plan lacks specifics on state-by-state funding, as well as the source of the money — controversies that already are triggering vigorous lobbying.

Florida's congressional delegation, for instance, has already taken pre-emptive action, sending a letter earlier this month urging top House Transportation committee members, including Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., to address inequities among the states.

Florida is among of a number of states, many in the Sunbelt, that contribute more tax dollars to the Highway Trust Fund than they get back. The state gets about 87 cents back for every dollar.

"It is our position that maintaining Florida's half-century long status as a donor state is not in the national interest and does not meet the state's transportation needs," said the letter, signed by every member of the Florida delegation except Mica.

The other problem is more immediate: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants only an 18 month extension of the transportation program, while the committee wants six years, the traditional length.

LaHood also wants the extension immediately, arguing that the program, funded largely by the federal gasoline tax, needs $5 billion to $7 billion by Sept. 30.

"With the reality of our fiscal environment and the critical demand to address our infrastructure investments in a smarter, more focused approach, we should not rush legislation," said LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, in a statement.

He got support from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"As we work our way out of this recession, the last thing we want to do is to drastically cut back on necessary transportation priorities," she said, adding that the White House plan "will keep the recovery and job creation moving forward and give us the necessary time to pass a more comprehensive multi-year transportation authorization bill with stable and reliable funding sources."

Critics saw another possible motivation for the proposed 18-month timetable: Federal gasoline tax revenues have sagged during the recession, and at its current pace, would provide only $326 billion over the next six years. The House committee's plans call for a 38 percent increase in highway money, as well as $50 billion for high speed rail.

That could require an increase in the current 18.4 cents a gallon gasoline tax.

Earlier this year, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, a congressionally-created panel, recommended a 10 cent a gallon increase in the gasoline tax and a 15 cent increase in the U.S. diesel fuel tax.

The commission said that currently the average household pays $17 a month in gasoline taxes; its recommendation would boost that by $9 a month and raise an estimated $20 billion a year.

LaHood's timetable would delay consideration of that until after the 2010 congressional elections. Administration officials deny that the gas tax question is behind their proposed timing.

LaHood told a Senate Appropriations transportation panel last week that he wants to work in the 18 month extension for the kinds of program changes that lawmakers seek.

"Our number one priority is to fix the Highway Trust Fund, to pay for it, to find money, and along the way here if we can have the discussions about these other things, I think we should," LaHood said.

However, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee's chairman, "Conversations are great, passing legislation is hard." She said she was "concerned about some of the lack of details . . . . You're offering a general framework for us, but we can't wait very long for a proposal."

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said that the need for better funding and planning is urgent, and he disparaged the administration's approach.

"There are folks in the economic gang at the White House who've never had a shovel in their hands or a callus on their fingers," Oberstar said.

Mica, the panel's ranking Republican, pledged his support. "We're going to do it together one way or another, come hell or high water," he vowed.

(Lesley Clark and Rob Hotakainen contributed to this article.)

ON THE WEB

National Infrastructure financing commission report

Transportation Secretary LaHood statement on highway fund

House transportation committee bill

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