Anyone who has been reading this blog in recent months knows that we have been obsessively following the intrigue surrounding the highway bill. This week marks another pivotal moment. As usual, it coincides with a looming expiration date, June 30, for the federal highway program. These are the two most likely outcomes: 1) a short-term stopgap (30 days or less) with a final deal in the works for a 15-month highway bill, or 2) a six-month extension. Neither option is fantastic.
The transportation chiefs on Capitol Hill have not given up on the notion that they could complete a bill by the end of the week, although the odds are good that they will need at least a small breather extending beyond July 1 to take care of the details. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., are working with staff to put in writing a deal struck last week on the highway provisions in the bill, which includes language to reduce the number of federal transportation offices and rework the funding for "transportation enhancements" that takes care of things like bike paths. After that, the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees are tasked with putting together the financing for the legislation.
It's still a tall order. House Speaker John Boehner is holding firm on his demand for a six-month extension if the deal isn't closed by week's end. That deal would have to include agreements on the non-transportation issues Keystone XL oil pipeline, coal ash, and the revenue raisers that would pay for the package, according to a leadership aide. By all accounts, the serious discussions on those extraneous issues have yet to begin, and there have been few signs from Republicans or Democrats that they are willing to bend on a controversial provision like Keystone.
This is an awful lot of hoopla for a milk-toast two-year highway bill as the best possible outcome. Is it worth it? What's the difference between six months and 15 months? Won't state transportation departments be reeling under the severe pressures of budget uncertainty no matter what happens? Why should the transportation community kill themselves to lobby for a bill that will be obsolete almost as soon as the ink is dry?