Washington — The Democratic-led Congress’ determination to do something about health care this year has slowed legislation affecting the safety of almost every traveler in America.
Barring some miracle, lawmakers acknowledge, they don’t have the time or the political capital to act on new bills bringing major improvements and more money to overworked infrastructure systems. The House is expected on Wednesday to simply extend existing surface and air transportation programs through the end of the year.
The reauthorization of surface transportation and Federal Aviation Administration programs faces roadblocks even without the time-consuming dominance of the health care debate. But both transportation priorities have been affected by the health care battle.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been poised for months to introduce a six-year, $500 billion bill to cover highway and public transit construction, repair and safety. It has been thwarted by the Senate and the White House, reluctant to take up another massive spending bill that may require a tax increase of its own at a time when people are talking about $1 trillion in spending for health care.
A highway bill also must wait for the Ways and Means Committee, now preoccupied with health care spending, to put together a revenue section for the bill.
The situation is similar for the FAA bill. The House in May passed a bill authorizing $70 billion for the FAA over three years. The Senate Commerce Committee in July approved a two-year, $35 billion bill. Both measures concentrate money on the NextGen satellite-based air traffic-control system that will make the nation’s airways significantly safer and more efficient.
But the Senate Finance Committee, which is working on health care legislation, has yet to complete work on the tax provisions in the FAA bill.
Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., believes the FAA has broad bipartisan support and that it’s critical the Senate act on it this calendar year, said spokeswoman Jena Longo. But “floor time is of great concern,” she said.
The main issue with the surface transportation bill is money. Highway work is supposed to be paid for by the federal gasoline and diesel taxes that drivers pay at the pump. That tax has stood at 18.4 cents a gallon, or 24.3 cents for diesel, since 1993 and can no longer cover the needs of the nation’s seriously overcrowded roads and bridges.
Congress has resisted suggestions that the tax be raised. The Senate, joined by the White House, supports an 18-month extension of the current act, pushing consideration of the revenue issue until after the 2010 election.
House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., has opposed that long of an extension.
“I know how Congress works,” he said over the summer. “Inertia becomes the enemy of progress.”
Congress in 2008 had to shore up the highway trust fund with $8 billion from the general treasury and come back with another $7 billion this year. The fund could come up another $125 billion short during the next six years without an increase in fuel taxes.
“The last thing we need is a series of short-term extensions because all that does is create uncertainty in the marketplace,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of Associated General Contractors of America. “It takes away states’ ability to plan.”
According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, there are other indirect costs of inaction, including poor road conditions that, according to the group, are a contributing factor in one-third of the 43,000 annual highway fatalities. Traffic gridlock alone amounts to an annual $78 billion “hidden tax” on the American economy and productivity, according to the group.