Senate approves two-year highway bill


WASHINGTON — The Senate last week approved a $109 billion transportation bill that would provide states with highway and transit funding for another two years.

Voting 74-22, senators cleared the legislation that over the next two years would provide Arkansas $1.05 billion from a total of $79 billion in federal grants to states.

“Investing in highways and infrastructure is the single, most important step we can take to create thousands of jobs and attract and expand businesses throughout the state,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

The bill now goes to the House where the pressure will be on to act ahead of the March 31 expiration date for the current transportation program. The House was not in session last week.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials supported passage of the Senate bill saying the bipartisan effort would provide a greater degree of funding certainty for states, consolidate programs and improve accountability.

Congress last approved a transportation bill in 2005 and has kept the program running through a series of continuing resolutions since late 2009. A major stumbling block in passing a new bill has been funding. The program is largely paid for through a federal tax on motor fuels, which has not kept pace with demand for road and transit projects.

The Senate bill, written by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., essentially skirted the revenue issue - retaining the same motor fuels tax as the main revenue engine. A Congressional Research Service report estimates the bill would create a $10 billion shortfall.

No Democrat opposed the bill while Republicans were about evenly split. Some Republican senators objected to the revenue gap while others touted the state highway construction projects - and accompanying jobs - that would result from the bill.

“I’m a strong supporter of highway infrastructure in Tennessee and throughout America, but paying for two years of spending over a decade contributes to the deficit and demonstrates that Congress can’t even uphold modest limits on spending enacted just last August,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Pryor and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., voted for the transportation bill.

Senate rejects tax credit extension

On a 49-49 vote, the Senate rejected an amendment to the transportation bill that sought to extend expiring tax credits for wind, biodiesel and other alternative energy programs. Proponents needed a filibuster-proof 60 votes to win passage.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., proposed the amendment saying that at a time of rising gasoline prices lawmakers should not allow tax credits to expire for “innovators and job creators who are helping to lower America’s energy bills.”

Stabenow’s amendment failed on a largely party-line vote. Republican opposition was largely focused on a provision that would have extended a renewable energy grant program created through President Obama’s controversial 2009 stimulus package.

Proponents of extending other tax cuts expect to have other opportunities to win passage this year. A bipartisan group led by Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., sent a letter last month to Senate leaders urging an extension of the production tax credit for the wind industry. Boozman signed the letter.

Pryor voted for Stabenow’s amendment. Boozman voted against it.