The Environment and Public Works committee on Thursday sent its federal transportation package to the full Senate, putting a bipartisan stamp on the six-year plan with a unanimous vote.
The bill, S.2322, “The MAP-21 Reauthorization Act,” now awaits action by the Senate Finance committee, which must find a way to pay for it in light of a failing Highway Trust Fund. The Commerce committee will examine safety and regulatory issues while the Banking committee will review transit programs.
MAP-21, the current transportation authorization, expires Sept. 30.
Calling it “a historic day,” EPW Chairman Barbara Boxer said that she could not recall a transportation bill in her more than 20 years on the committee that passed without controversial amendments being offered.
“What you saw here was an amazing result of cooperation,” she said. “This is the way the Senate should be run.”
Sen. Tom Carper, chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, likened getting the bill through Congress to eating an elephant: a process, however difficult, that must achieved “one bite at a time.”
“A lot of folks believe that we’re going to have a very hard time getting anything passed,” he said. “This is a real important bite.”
Smoothing the process, Boxer noted, the committee used MAP-21 – largely EPW’s bill two years ago – as the template, and extended its policy reforms with a “six-year frame.”
The committee also passed en banc a handful of amendments dealing with adjustments to how much Highway Trust Fund money can go toward research, and to the formulas used to decide which bridges get repaired and which states qualify as “rural” to receive certain program funds.
Which is not to say there wasn’t disagreement along the way.
Boxer credited Carper, a fellow Democrat, with being able set aside issues he is “passionate about.”
The former Delaware governor, based on his experience there, has expressed support for the administration’s plan to remove barriers that limit the states’ ability to toll existing Interstates. Such a provision is not included in the EPW bill.
The trucking industry generally opposes tolling as an alternative to the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel, but at an appearance this week with representatives of both trucking and the railroad industry, Carper said he supports gradually increasing the motor fuels tax to restore buying power lost to inflation since the tax was last raised 20 years ago, and indexing the tax thereafter.
And, as a member of the finance committee, Carper will indeed have a say on how to increase revenue to keep pace with the bill’s requirements –estimated at $265 billion through 2020.
In his remarks, Carper mentioned an amendment in the works to “strengthen the freight title,” even as he praised the bill for its current multimodal freight component. He also noted the need to control diesel emissions.
“The great thing about diesel engines is that they last along time,” he said. “The bad thing about diesel engines is they last a long time – and they put up a huge amount of pollution.”
Still, he praised Boxer and the committee for taking a bipartisan leadership role.
“We’re the first on the beach,” he said.
And Boxer conceded that “a lot more work has to be done.”
“It’s going to be tough, but it’s doable,” she said. “Both sides believe infrastructure is a responsibility of this Congress.”