Highway mass transit bill hits rocky road

WASHINGTON - With Congress facing a Mar. 31 deadline to act, legislation to renew federal highway and mass transit funding - now just for the next two years - is hitting a rocky road on Capitol Hill.

The Senate version of the two-year $106 billion measure is starting to get out of the mud, but may be stalled by amendments on controversial issues ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to mercury emissions from industrial boilers.

And the GOP-run House has split into warring factions over its version - so much so that Republican leaders are threatening their own caucus that they will throw in the towel and accept whatever the Democratic-run Senate sends them.

At issue is legislation to renew highway projects and mass transit funding for the next two years, creating tens of thousands of jobs. Construction and transportation unions have lobbied hard for a "clean" bill, without controversial amendments, that also keeps mass transit funding coming from gas tax revenues. They're urging their members to contact their lawmakers about the legislation, arguing for a clean, long bill.

Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes all the major industrialized nations, warned in a report released earlier in March that the world needs $53 billion in infrastructure investment by 2030 just to keep up with present needs and expected growth.

And it adds that any nation that falls behind in such investment - the U.S. included - risks also falling behind economically.

"Much of this infrastructure," including not just highways and mass transit, but airports and ports, "will require improved capacity to handle volumes two or three times current levels, not to mention the largest passenger aircraft and container vessels in use by 2030," OECD says.

"Improved funding and financing arrangements will be needed in many countries, given current deficit and debt levels and other expected demands on budget resources."

The OECD called for nations to create a new "strategic infrastructure category that includes the major international gateways and their key inland connections," in other words not just ports and airports but the highways and rail links to them. "Most of the current gateway and corridor infrastructure could not handle a 50 percent increase, let alone a doubling of passengers in 15 years or a tripling of freight in 20 years," it said.

Those increases represent the OECD's consensus forecast for growth through 2030.

Some countries, OECD said, have "good planning processes and strategic infrastructure plans linked to assured funding." Others - and an OECD spokesman indicated in an email to Press Associates that the U.S. seems like one - do not.

"In the future, since funding of transport infrastructure from traditional sources will 'dry up,' improved funding is needed in many countries to ensure funding security and levels consistent with the development of the strategic infrastructure required to meet future needs," OECD warns. "Countries without good funding arrangements may not see their strategic infrastructure built.

"In many countries, there needs to be greater project certainty and funding assurance. Plans without assured funding can create a credibility gap, weaken stakeholder interest, and damage future performance," OECD stated.

Unions make many of those same arguments to Congress in lobbying not just for a two-year highway-mass transit bill, but also for the original five-year bill lawmakers envisioned. President Obama, in his budget for the year starting Oct. 1, proposed a multi-year plan approving more than half a billion dollars' worth of projects. But his plan is expected to go nowhere in Congress.

That's because funding it is a problem, just as OECD pointed out. Federal gas tax revenues have fallen, due to a combination of more-efficient vehicles and lessened driving due to the Great Recession. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., tried to craft a highway-mass transit bill to fit the declining revenues, but it was so skimpy that Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan said Mica's bill would actually destroy jobs, not create them.

And Mica's bill has crashed for other reasons as well: Anti-worker provisions in its text and elimination of dedicated funding - from the gas tax - for mass transit. With Tea Party Republicans opposing any highway-mass transit spending at all, Mica needed Democrats to pass his bill. The anti-worker provisions, such as privatizing Amtrak's food and beverage services, and the eviction of mass transit alienated them.

That leaves the Senate's version, and lawmakers there spent the week of March 5 working through dozens of amendments to it - some of them controversial.

Besides competing proposals dealing with construction of the Keystone XL pipeline - which construction unions favor but some other unions oppose on environmental grounds - and industrial boilers, those amendments include one to extend leases for offshore oil and gas drilling from two years to five years.

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