September 22, 2009 2:00 PM, EDT

House Panel Develops Highway Law Extension

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Sept. 21 print edition of Transport Topics.

The House transportation committee is preparing a short-term extension of the current highway funding law, while continuing work on a long-term replacement for the legislation that expires in less than two weeks.

A spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee confirmed that panel leaders were working on an extension, ideally for three months, although the exact length was “fungible.”

Keeping the current law for just three months would be a significant departure from the path the Senate had been mapping out for an 18-month extension, which some freight interest groups said was too long.

Committee spokesman Jim Berard told Transport Topics that “three months is Oberstar’s ideal, but we can’t be locked into that because there’s a lot that has to take place between now and then.” Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., is chairman of the transportation committee.

Extending the current spending authorization, which expires on Sept. 30, all but assures that Oberstar’s sweeping, six-year proposal will remain stalled.

Oberstar “is intending to move a three-month extension, so I think it is very doubtful that he’s then also going to try to move the full highway bill before the end of this month,” one transportation lobbyist told TT. “But I think he’s planning to do something in October.”

Both Berard and Justin Harclerode, spokesman for committee Republicans, said they thought an extension could come up on the House floor as soon as this week.

An extension still could take several weeks to get through Congress and to the White House.

“The extension is going to be a clean extension, so there’s not a lot to work out other than the obvious difference between the House, the Senate and the administration,” said Tim Lynch, senior vice president of American Trucking Associations. “I think this is going to be one of those things that’s discussed right up to the end of the month.”

The Senate has taken steps to-ward an 18-month extension of the legislation, an approach favored by the Obama administration.

That wait would be too long in the eyes of several interest groups that said on Sept. 14 that Congress should limit the delay in passing a long-term bill. Because transportation projects usually take several years, Congress typically passes a bill authorizing spending for six years.

“No matter what the differences are among industries, no matter what the differences are among who’s paying and who’s using, we all recognize one thing . . . that 18 months is too long,” said Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Kavinoky spoke with other industry representatives in Washington at an event sponsored by the Freight Stakeholders Coalition.

Darrin Roth, ATA’s director of highway operations, said that a long-term bill was “needed as quickly as possible.”

“We can’t wait until the transportation system becomes a drag on the economy,” he said.

Both Roth and Kavinoky said their organizations supported raising the fuel tax to fund a transportation bill.

Deciding how to pay for transportation projects has been one of the issues delaying a bill.

Roth said ATA believes increasing fuel taxes is the most efficient way to raise transportation dollars, and “all alternatives will be judged against it.”

In addition, Roth said that ATA was “open to new fees” on container movements or other freight-specific charges.

Kavinoky said that even though agenda items such as health care have “sucked all the oxygen out of the room,” it was time for Congress to “multitask.”

“The more time we waste on this transportation bill, the more time it is going to take to get goods from one part of this country to another,” she said, “And I didn’t need to get an MBA to know that time is money.”