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White House sends Congress US$478b 6-year transportation bill

[WASHINGTON] The Obama Administration on Monday sent Congress a US$478-billion bill that would provide the federal share of transportation funding for the next six years, the first legislation out of the gate in a year that likely will produce a competition among three different bills.

The White House bill is the least likely of the three to make it back to the president's desk for his signature, and with the days dwindling to a May 31 deadline, so does the chance that any bill will be passed in time to provide state planners with stability at the onset of the highway construction season.

Given the complexity of approving a long-term transportation bill, the odds are that Congress will have to come up with cash to fund a short-term extension while it struggles for consensus on how to pay for a multi-year bill.

The administration bill rolled out Monday would bolster the gas-tax reliant Highway Trust Fund by imposing a 14 per cent tax on an estimated US$2 billion that US corporations have stashed offshore to avoid higher corporate tax rates here.

There is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for luring that money home with a one-time tax break, and Rep John Delaney, D-Md, has proposed a more robust approach to repatriation that could provide transportation cash for far longer.

While both the House and Senate are working on their own transportation bills, neither seems likely to significantly boost federal spending beyond the current level of about US$50 billion a year.

The administration bill would bump annual funding by almost US$25 billion to an average close to US$74 billion over six years.

The biggest increase would come in transit funding, a 79 per cent jump over current spending that would be invested in shoring up maintenance and improvements to existing systems and for expansion of light-rail, street car and rapid bus systems.

Transit investment has been a hot potato in Congress, as members from areas that have minimal transit systems favor using the Highway Trust Fund primarily or solely for roads and bridges. A move to uncouple transit funding from the last surface transportation bill ran into a roadblock in the House from a bipartisan coalition of members who serve urban and suburban districts where transit is considered vital.

The administration bill also would increase highway funds by about 29 per cent above current levels, with a policy emphasis on repairing deteriorating existing roads and bridges before investing in new construction. Some of the increased funding would go to federal regulators who police automotive, truck and bus safety.

In addition to the perpetual quest for streamlining the federal project approval process, Congress sought to transfer greater decision-making authority to state and local governments when it passed the current two-year transportation bill, MAP-21, in 2012.

The White House is proposing more of that, with greater authority transferred to regional planners. The administration also wants to expand the competitive TIGER grants program, for which states and cities submit applications.

Both the shift to greater autonomy for state and local governments and the TIGER grant program generally have won bipartisan support from Congress and from the governments which have benefitted from them.

The May 31 deadline which lawmakers now face is of their own making. When MAP-21 expired last year without any resolution of how to shore up the trust fund in the face of declining federal gas tax revenues, Congress came up with US$10.8 billion from general tax revenues to extend the bill.

With just two months remaining before that extension expires, there has been support in some quarters for increasing the gas tax and a groundswell for using repatriation.

WP