The American Society of Civil Engineers designated Jan. 12-16 an opportune period for members to visit federal officials and their staffs and voice concerns about reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Society officials note that the week provided optimal timing, as Congress reconvened Jan. 20 with an agenda that includes transportation funding. To reinforce the message, ASCE and other groups behind the Transportation Construction Coalition designated Jan. 21 Transportation Call Your Member of Congress Day.
TEA-21 expired Sept. 30 with the federal government's fiscal 2003 year, although highway and bridge funding were maintained at an annualized level of about $31 billion for five months. Upon passage of the temporary funding package, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) noted that the October-February window would afford the House and Senate time to firm up highway bill reauthorization. With strong backing from TCC, Rep. Young and bipartisian colleagues have offered up the most ambitious of three proposals to fund highways, bridges and transit over the next six years:
The new House Transportation Committee bill, entitled Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (TEA LU), incorporates the following items:
Prior to the House action, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works approved a TEA-21 reauthorization (S.1072) package known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA). EPW Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK), Ranking Committee Member James Jeffords (I-VT), Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee Chairman Kit Bond (R-MO), and Ranking Subcommittee Member Harry Reid (D-NV) released the following statement: After a long, bipartisan, collaborative process, the committee has crafted a very strong bill, one that will create jobs, promote economic growth, and address the nation's surface transportation needs. It is my hope that as Congress returns, the Senate will consider this legislation as its first order of business, enabling us to conference with the House and send the bill to the President's desk as quickly as possible.
Ethanol fuel subsidies have arisen in the TEA-21 reauthorization debate, along with energy legislation that Congress had weighed late into last year. Seventeen governors had urged Congress to resolve the adverse impact of ethanol motor fuels federal tax treatment on the Highway Trust Fund during negotiations on national energy policy legislation. Negotiators on the energy bill had reached an agreement, including several key points: a transfer to the Highway Trust Fund of revenue from the 2.5 cents-per-gallon of ethanol tax that is deposited in the General Fund was not stipulated; the Grassley-Baucus proposal restructuring the ethanol motor fuels excise tax incentive to establish a General Fund tax refund was included with an effective date of January 1, 2004; and, the current 5.2 cents per gallon ethanol tax exemption was retained.
Accordingly, ethanol blenders would have an option to use either the current system (receiving an upfront 5.2 cents tax incentive) or the Grassley-Baucus system (requiring payment of the full 18.4 cents per gallon tax, but receiving a 5.2 cents per gallon tax refund). Only those blenders using the new structure will compensate the Highway Trust Fund. Thus, no quantifiable immediate benefit to the transportation programs can be determined. While the Grassley-Baucus proposal clearly does not offer a complete solution, Chairman Grassley has emphasized that he is committed to repealing the 5.2 cents-per-gallon exemption and transferring the 2.5 cent revenue to the Highway Trust Fund at the earliest possible point. Once this is accomplished, the Trust Fund will be fully compensated for ethanol use.
The U.S. Department of Transportation closed out 2003 with an announcement that state and federal officials expect to spend the first two months of the new year waging an aggressive education campaign surrounding the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration's new hours-of-service rule, which went into effect Jan. 4. The education and enforcement plans have been designed to ensure long-term compliance and understanding of the safety rule, which has undergone its first major rewrite in more than 60 years.
The new rule synchronizes the commercial drivers' work and rest schedule better with the body's circadian rhythm to reduce fatigue and save lives, DOT officials contend. FMCSA has asked states to write warnings instead of citations for all but flagrant violations. Federal inspectors will coordinate education and enforcement efforts from regional offices across the country.