Transit Gains Funds in Revised Senate Transportation Bill

The Senate’s six-year $350-billion transportation bill continues to change, as lawmakers shifted more funds to transit at the expense of highway programs and dropped some proposed revenue-raising mechanisms.

The package continued to move on July 26 when supporters of the Export-Import Bank prevailed in a procedural vote on an amendment aimed at renewing the bank’s charter, which lapsed on June 30.

Meanwhile, House leaders haven’t embraced the pending Senate bill and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says that that with the current highway-transit authorization due to expire on July 31, another extension is likely.

The Senate highway-transit bill’s prime movers—Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) the Environment and Public Works Committee’s top Democrat—have rewritten some provisions to pick up support from more colleagues.

Transit advocates scored a big win, convincing McConnell and Boxer to increase funding for public transportation.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who helped lead the transit push, said in a July 23 statement: “We fought back an effort to shortchange American commuters who depend on public transportation to get to their jobs and contribute to the economy.”

Brown’s office said that the original version of the bill, titled the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act (DRIVE), provided $3.2 billion in new revenue to highways and $200 million to transit. Brown and his allies were able to get the transit share bumped up to $815 million.

Finding new revenue to increase the transportation bill’s overall funding has been extremely difficult, so changing its allocations is a zero-sum game:  a boost for transit required cuts elsewhere.

McConnell and Boxer looked to the highway side of the bill for offsetting reductions. They sliced the allotment for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) federal loan program by $50 million a year, to an annual total off $450 million.

They also trimmed a new major-projects program by $50 million annually.

The added transit money ”obviously calmed a lot of people down,” an industry source says. “It’s never good for the overall program when highway money gets pitted against transit.”

The Senate on July 24 voted to proceed with debate on the bill, keeping the measure moving.

The same day, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report estimating the DRIVE Act’s six-year cost at $350 billion, in terms of its contract authority. But the legislation only has enough actual funding for its first three years.

Lawmakers and construction industry officials hope that, if something like the DRIVE Act becomes law, Congress will come up with the additional $51 billion that CBO says is needed to fund the bill through 2021.

If the bill continues to progress to final Senate passage before the July 31 deadline, it may have problems in the House.

That chamber on July 15 approved a five-month $8-billion extension to continue highway and transit programs through Dec. 18. Its sponsors said the extra months will give them time to draft a multi-year bill.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a July 23 press briefing, “The House has passed a responsible bill to fund our highway programs for the next five months. “

Boehner added, “There’s a lot of concern being raised by our committee chairmen and others about the policy that is contained in the bill the Senate is considering. We don’t know what that bill’s going to look like until they pass it. And until they do, I just want to reserve judgment on how we’ll proceed.”

Speaking earlier that day, Pelosi said that she didn’t oppose the Senate bill, but observed that a long-term bill “cannot possibly be finished by the 31st of July.”

Pelosi said, “I would hope that [the Senate] would follow the path that we set here in a very bipartisan way.” She noted that House members “were reluctant to support another short-term bill but the fact is, July 31st is fast upon us.”

After some senators objected to some of the revenue-raising “pay-fors” in the their bill McConnell and Boxer dropped a couple of them, and made further funding cuts to keep its cost within their revenue parameters.

According to a July 24 summary from McConnell’s office, in a second revision of the bill, TIFIA took another hit, bringing its annual funding down to $300 million.

That’s a major reduction from the program’s $1 billion in 2015 funding and also a steep cut from the $650 million for TIFIA in the version that the EPW committee cleared on June 24.

TIFIA loans have been an important component of financing packages for major surface-transportation  projects.

Story updated on July 27 with Ex-Im Bank cloture vote.