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Senate Passes $109B Highway-Transit Bill
 By Tom Ichniowski

 The long struggle to achieve a surface-transportation funding bill has reached an important milepost, as the Senate passed  a two-year bill authorizing $109-billion for highway and transit programs. Approval came March 14 on a strong, bipartisan 74-22 vote, as 22 Republicans joined 52 Democrats to support the measure.

The focus quickly shifted to the House, where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has had trouble finding votes to pass a five-year, $260-billion transportation-energy package that has made it through committee.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the bill's sponsor and floor manager, urged the House to pass the Senate measure. She said, "When you have a bill that gets 74 votes at a time when everything is so contentious...they ought to take a serious look at taking this bill up."

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said: "We are all working together toward coalescing around a longer-term approach with needed reforms. If we can't get there, we may have to take up something like the Senate bill —but we'd prefer to take the responsible approach on this and get a longer-term bill through the House."

The House's approach to the highway-transit bill could start to become clearer during the week of March 19, when it returns from a one-week recess. The clock is ticking: The latest in a series of stopgap authorizations is due to expire on March 31. Another short extension is possible, to keep road and transit funds flowing for a while.

The progress in the Senate was welcome news for construction industry companies weary of the 29-month delay in passing a long-term transportation bill. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, "This is an important piece of legislation—not dealing with tens of jobs or hundreds of jobs or thousands of jobs but millions of jobs."

Construction industry officials would prefer a bill longer than two years but see the Senate bill as positive. Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, says, "Getting some stability in this program would really be a good thing for this industry, at least through 2013. And then after that, we'll be back at it again—but we don't want to think about that right now."

Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president for government affairs, says the Senate bill's funding levels "are a very good start." Hall says the bill's sponsor, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), "has tried to push the funding envelope as far as she can. It doesn't go as far as we'd like, but nevertheless [the funding is] a good element of the bill."

Boxer said the Senate bill "doesn't go long enough. That, I'll admit. But we just didn't have the long-term funding source resolved." She added, "There is not one earmark in this bill. This is a reform bill. This is a compromise bill.  This is a fully paid-for bill."

Besides its $109 billion for grants, the measure also hikes federal subsidies for the existing Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program for major projects to $1 billion a year, from $122 million now. That would support a much larger volume of federal loans, which in turn would be supplemented by non-federal funds.

Industry also likes Senate provisions to simplify the surface-transportation bureaucracy by trimming roughly 90 categories and programs to fewer than 30. The bill also would speed up project approvals by such actions as expediting environmental reviews.

The Senate bill's path wasn't easy. It moved to the floor on Feb. 7, but later that month Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) proposed an amendment to undo Obama administration policy on contraceptives. Reid and his allies blocked the plan March 1. But they faced a new hurdle when lawmakers insisted on offering a batch of other amendments, many of which had no link to roads or transit lines.

Reid solved that problem by cutting a deal on March 7 with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on which amendments could be offered.

The Senate ended up rejecting most of the 30 or so amendments on the list. One failed amendment sought to authorize construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project. Another proposed to give the Environmental Protection Agency more time to issue new rules governing Maximum Achievable Control Technology to limit air emissions from boilers and solid-waste incinerators.

One construction-related rider that the Senate cleared would direct 80% of the penalties that could be levied against BP for the 2010 Gulf oil spill to restore the Gulf Coast economy and ecology. The amount for Gulf restoration could range from $4.3 billion to $16.9 billion."The current plan is to see what the Senate can produce and to bring their bill up."