Sweeping Senate transportation bill sets highway, transit, railroad and safety policy

Energy Associated Press

The Senate is moving toward the likely passage this week of a sweeping, six-year transportation bill, but the House is putting off consideration of the measure until this fall.

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With a Friday deadline to prevent a cutoff of highway and transit aid to states, House and Senate Republican leaders say they will also pass an $8 billion short-term bill to shore up the federal Highway Trust Fund through October. That will give the House about two months after it returns from its August recess to weigh in on a long-term transportation bill.

Business and transportation industry lobby groups are urging their members to ask their congressmen and senators to support the Senate bill. Industry officials said the $350 billion Senate bill isn't ideal — not as much money as they would like and only three of the six years paid for — but they are desperate for at least a few years certainty rather an another short-term patch.

Since 2009, Congress has passed 34 short-term transportation extensions. Five states — Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming — have delayed or canceled $1.5 billion in construction projects because they couldn't count on federal aid, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said.

Some highlights of the Senate bill:

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HIGHWAYS

The bill shores up the federal Highway Trust Fund for three years by using about $45 billion in revenue increases and making spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. The largest source of funds is $16 billion that would be saved by reducing the dividend rate the government pays to large banks.

The bill also attempts to speed up environmental reviews of construction projects and encourages states to impose user fees on electric vehicles because they use roadways but don't contribute to federal gas tax revenues. It also sets aside money for major projects and directs highway aid to major freight transportation corridors, starting with $1.5 billion in fiscal 2016 and increasing to $2.5 billion in 2021.

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AUTO AND HIGHWAY SAFETY

The safety provisions are the most controversial transportation part of the bill both for what they include and what they don't include. The bill requires that rental car agencies fix cars subject to safety recalls before renting them, but it doesn't include language sought by safety advocates requiring car dealers to fix recalled used cars before selling them. It would double the amount the government can fine automakers who don't disclose safety defects from $35 million to $70 million — significantly less than the $300 million sought by the White House. It would force the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to conceal from the public its safety ratings of trucking companies; the trucking industry says the agency's methodology is flawed.

An effort by Democrats to add criminal penalties for auto company officials who knowingly conceal safety defects from the government was unsuccessful.

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RAILROADS

The bill authorizes an average $1.65 billion a year for Amtrak over the next four years. Another $570 million in grants each year could be used to improve service and eliminate rail congestion in the railroad's busy Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington. It streamlines environmental and historic preservation permitting requirements.

There are two controversial safety provisions: One would require the government testing of more advanced train brakes before implementing a requirement that railroads install them on trains that haul volatile crude oil. The other indefinitely delays a deadline for railroads to get government certification and put into operation technology that can automatically stop or slow trains to prevent crashes. Accident investigators have said that if the technology had been in operation it could have prevented an Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in May that killed eight people and injured about 200 others.

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TRANSIT

The bill increases annual funding for transit aid by about 25 percent — or more than $2 billion — over six years. It includes a 12 percent increase, or $262 million, in fiscal year 2016 to allow public transit agencies with rail systems to address pressing repairs. It streamlines a grant program for innovative projects, and increases funding for rural areas by $105 million.

The American Public Transit Association said the authorized increases are still too small, and expressed concern that the money attached to the bill might not be enough to cover even three years of the authorized spending.