Highway Bills Hit Roadblocks

DC Dialogue

Crucial components include biodiesel tax extension, funds for river dredging and truck weight limits.

Published on: February 24, 2012

The House and Senate are working on differing versions of the surface transportation reauthorization legislation, commonly referred to as the "highway bill." Originally thought to pass before the President’s Day recess, legislators will now not tackle it until after returning Feb. 27.

The bill funds roads, bridges and transit services and has been funded by receipts from the federal gas tax. Increases in the number and cost of transportation projects and declining gas tax revenues have resulted in significant shortfalls in funding.

Efforts to address the funding shortfalls have resulted in significant policy and political differences. The House has crafted a 5-year proposal that is funded with revenue from royalties that would come from future expansions in oil and gas drilling. The Senate has developed a shorter-term, 2-year bill that is financed with several offsets identified by the Senate Finance Committee.

Controversy over the increased level of spending and the oil and gas drilling provisions has created opposition to the bill. A National Grain and Feed Association newsletter noted that it was “rumored that the House measure does not have sufficient support to pass in its current form.”

Nearly 300 amendments were filed on the bill. Among the amendments is one by Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., that would allow the amount of allocations allowed by the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) to equal the amount of funds collected by the fund. The HMTF is designed primary to generate funds for port dredging, but past experience has been that the fund is raided to pay for other purposes, NGFA noted.

Another amendment introduced by Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., would extend the $1 per gallon biodiesel tax credit through 2013.

The American Soybean Association said it supports provisions in the House bill that would extend the agriculture harvest time exemption from hours-of-service rules for truck drivers. ASA supported the increased truck weight limits that were included in the initial House bill, but that provision was removed by an amendment during committee mark-up.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is finding it difficult to gain floor approval of that chamber’s two-year, $109 billion highway bill extension (S. 1813), despite her earlier assessment of its bipartisan support.

Boxer cited controversial amendments on non-germane issues as the holdup, including amendments filed for floor consideration that would cut off aid to Egypt until 19 American civilians being detained there are allowed to leave the country. Other amendments include provisions dealing with the health care law and the mandated insurance coverage for contraception.

Amendments proposed in the Senate that are of interest to agriculture include an effort to repeal the anti-trust exemption for the rail industry and amendments relating to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program.