Although it’s still only a work in progress, the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) finally put both of its feet on the ground in early April as the House approved its version of this critical surface transportation legislation.
At press time, the extension of TEA 21, which concluded its six-year run on Sept. 30, 2003, was due to expire on April 30, 2004. By the time you read this, lawmakers will have had to pass another short-term extension, approve the reauthorization in abrupt fashion or temporarily shut down key federal transportation agencies. I hope that the short-term extension was their choice.
Even though the House’s reauthorization legislation the Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (TEA LU) would provide only $275 billion over six years, compared to the Senate’s $318 billion plan (Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act, SAFETEA), the good news is that it had overwhelming support.
Resounding support seen
In approving the measure by a 357-65 margin, the House has enough backing to override a threatened veto by President Bush. The White House has made it clear that it wants spending over the six-year span to be held down to $256 billion. In addition, it has warned against a House provision that would allow the measure to be reopened next year to have its funding expanded by lawmakers.
By the time this issue reaches you, the House and Senate will most likely be conferring on the two legislative proposals, trying to cobble together a mutually acceptable package. The seminal issue, of course, will be the funding level.
In this critically important election year, the Bush administration has made it clear that it opposes spending above $256 billion. But this hard target, prompted by a federal deficit that’s projected to grow, can be elusive in its formulation and effect. The additional spending levels requested by both chambers will provide badly needed economic stimulus. As you well know, highway and transit spending creates new jobs, and also bears the fruit of much-needed transportation improvements.
The Senate’s $318 billion plan translates into $56.5 billion for transit, while the House bill guarantees $51.5 billion. The Bush administration’s proposal sets transit spending at $45.8 billion. The American Public Transportation Association has recommended an increase in transit spending to $65.7 billion.
Buy America tune-up offered
Each proposal has its individual strengths and weaknesses. For example, the House version maintains the 80% federal share for New Starts programs. It also strengthens Buy America regulations, applying the 60/40 rolling stock and subcomponent requirements to manufactured products and removing the waiver for microcomputer equipment.
This proposed bolstering of Buy America really merits congressional support. A tune-up of the act has been long overdue and is badly needed to protect the interests of domestic suppliers. It also helps to ensure that tax dollars are recycled into the U.S. economy.
Meanwhile, the Senate version offers about $5 billion more for transit funding than the House proposal. But it also contains language that puts private bus operators in a vulnerable position by opening the door for transit agencies to provide charter service to schools and other governmental agencies. The language of this provision needs to be carefully parsed to ensure that unfair competition from public agencies is not the end result.
Let’s hope that uncommon wisdom and patience prevail as the House and Senate wrangle over the final reauthorization measure. A spending bill that will build upon the successes of TEA 21 is worth waiting for.