WASHINGTON (June 28, 2012)—House and Senate conferees reached agreement late yesterday on a bill to reauthorize funding for the nation's highway and transit programs through Sept. 30, 2014.
The bill increases funding for transportation projects to $120 billion from $109 billion. It also will replenish the Highway Trust Fund from the general treasury and changes to pension interest rates and other related services.
Conferees also planned to attach to the bill a provision, approved by Senate leaders, to freeze student loan rates for a year.
In conference, Republicans gave up provisions to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and limit regulations on coal ash emissions from power plants. Democrats, in turn, gave up $1.4 billion earmarked for conservation projects and agreed to allow more leeway on environmental review, permitting, and states' use of money designated for landscaping, bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the bill was “critical to helping restore our nation's roads, bridges and highways.”
Among other things, Sen. Rockefeller said, the highway bill will enhance grant programs under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for safety initiatives; increase the use of technology to modernize the operations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration; and improve oversight of hazardous materials transported on the nation's highways.
“The Tire Industry Association is jubilant that the U.S. Congress is finally going to pass a transportation reauthorization bill, rather than a 10th stopgap measure,” said Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president.
“With two impending deadlines on student loan rates and transportation reauthorization, the Congress needed to act, for the good of the country,” Littlefield said. “The compromises that were reached did not give either side all they wanted, but gave the American economy what it needs.”
The Rubber Manufacturers Association breathed a sigh of relief when it saw the conference bill, an RMA spokesman said.
The Senate transportation bill passed in March contained provisions—motivated by Toyota's massive accelerator recall—to expand NHTSA's powers under the “early warning” provisions of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, the spokesman said. Those provisions would have placed severe restrictions on what early warning information could be classified as confidential.
However, the conference bill does not contain those provisions, the spokesman said.
“From our standpoint, those provisions would have been anticompetitive for our members,” he said. “Also, the much greater disclosure of early warning information would have been another opportunity for trial lawyers to fish for lawsuits.”
Both the House and Senate are poised to act quickly on the highway bill before the July 4 recess.