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Directions in Highway Safety Cover - Spring 2011 Download Newsletter pdf
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Spring 2011 | Vol. 13 | No. 1

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Highway Reauthorization on Agenda but Outlook Uncertain

Plans for the reauthorization of Safe, Accountable, Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) are moving forward but it is not at all certain that a reauthorization bill will actually be passed by Congress this year.

On the House side, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee John Mica (R-FL) held a series of twelve field hearings, primarily in the districts of Committee members, to receive input on reauthorization. The Los Angeles hearings were held jointly with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – the lead Committee on reauthorization in the Senate. Following the hearings, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee is expected to begin writing a bill. Chairman Mica has publicly stated his goal for reauthorization is to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund and “do more with less.” Reportedly, the T&I Committee will propose a $220 billion six-year reauthorization bill – about 30 percent lower than the funding levels authorized in SAFETEA-LU.

It is unclear if any new revenues will be authorized to support the next federal surface transportation program. Responsibility for the revenue title rests with the House Ways and Means Committee, and that Committee hasn’t indicated its plans for reauthorization. The Committee may be influenced by the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility which recommended that the federal surface transportation program should be funded at levels supported solely by the Highway Trust Fund and not by any General Fund revenue, as has been the case in the last three fiscal years. If the Committee follows that recommendation but does not increase revenue into the Highway Trust Fund, then the size of the federal surface transportation program would have to be reduced substantially (and that is what the House T&I Committee is reportedly considering).

Complicating reauthorization are two House actions that would make it far more difficult to enact a well-funded surface transportation program. In the first action, the House repealed the funding guarantees on surface transportation programs that were enacted twelve years ago under the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century (TEA-21). The former House rule created “firewalls” around surface transportation programs and guaranteed that programs, including the federal behavioral highway safety programs, would be funded at the authorized levels. Without those firewalls, surface transportation programs can be funded at lower levels and states won’t be able to determine their actual allocations until the very end of the appropriations process. The second action was the enactment of a new rule that would require any new federal expenditure to be offset solely by reductions elsewhere in the federal budget. This rule makes it very difficult for the House to raise gasoline or any other taxes to support an increased federal surface transportation program.

The Senate is also beginning to work on a reauthorization bill. The Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal behavioral grant programs, will begin to draft legislation once the Administration unveils its reauthorization proposal. The Committee’s bill will have to be merged with the reauthorization proposals of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and two other Committees before it can be considered on the Senate floor. The Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the funding title has, like its House counterpart, not announced its plans for reauthorization.

The Administration is also preparing its reauthorization proposal. Some details were incorporated into the President’s FY 2012 budget request which was submitted to Congress on February 14. Additional details are expected to be released soon.

For the behavioral highway safety programs, the Administration is proposing to keep most of the categorical grant programs but to consolidate two of them, create a new distracted driving incentive program and tweak the rest. Some changes would be made to the Section 402 program including a new assurance that states are implementing the Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) initiative. The Section 405 occupant protection and the Section 2011 booster seat incentive program would be combined into a new 405 program that would provide incentive funds for both adult and child occupant protection. The Section 408 data improvement incentive grant program would continue current eligibility criteria, but there would be new reporting requirements as well as new requirements for the Traffic Records Coordinating Committees. The Section 410 impaired driving incentive program would be completely changed into a performance-based program in which states would receive a level of funding based on their performance. States that enact ignition interlock laws for all offenders would receive additional incentive funds. A new Section 411 incentive grant program would be created for states that enact laws to prevent distracted driving. No details were provided on the eligibility criteria, but there would be a “focus on texting bans.” The Section 2011 motorcyclist safety incentive program would be changed into a new Section 3011 program with more flexibility for eligible states to use their motorcycle safety funds.

Overall, the Administration is proposing a $556 billion reauthorization bill – a substantial increase over the current surface transportation programs. However, there will be no funding recommendations attached to the U.S. DOT reauthorization proposal. The Administration has indicated that it wants the Congress to take the lead in addressing this thorny issue. Further, the Administration has maintained its strong opposition to increasing the federal gasoline tax during a time of economic distress. That leaves few options for financing such a large federal surface transportation program. Despite this challenge, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood has indicated that he would like Congress to enact a reauthorization bill by the time of the August recess.

Pressure to move quickly toward a multi-year reauthorization bill is mounting. In testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO urged Congress to reauthorize federal infrastructure programs this year and to raise the federal gasoline tax to pay for increased infrastructure funding. Observers both inside and outside Congress believe that there is a six-month window for reauthorization this year. If a bill isn’t enacted by the end of the current fiscal year, then it is unlikely to be enacted until after the Presidential election in 2012.