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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Surface Transportation Program Reauthorization Issues for the 111th Congress

John W. Fischer, Coordinator
Specialist in Transportation Policy

Reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs was supposed to have occurred before the end of FY2009, but Congress failed to meet that deadline. Surface transportation programs continue to operate on the basis of authority provided in Continuing Resolutions. Extension legislation may also be enacted to facilitate program continuation. For the moment, however, passage of a complete reauthorization package during the remainder of the 111th Congress appears problematic. 

This situation should not be a surprise to those familiar with the history of the reauthorization process. Especially during the last two decades reauthorization has become a difficult undertaking. This is primarily due to controversy over how and to whom federal-aid highway funds should be distributed. The most recent law, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU or SAFETEA) (P.L. 109-59) was enacted 22 months after previous legislation had originally expired. Previous reauthorization bills also arrived well after their required reenactment dates. 

The most difficult issue to be considered during reauthorization is how to finance it. The highway trust fund and the revenue sources that feed it have been a reliable mechanism for financing highway and transit programs for five decades, but no more. Almost all transportation industry observers see a need for a larger federal contribution to national infrastructure creation in the years ahead. For a number of reasons discussed in this report, fuel taxes, which provide most of the money for surface transportation, are unlikely to provide a solid long-term foundation for this desired growth, even if Congress were to raise them modestly. The choice for policymakers, therefore, is to find new sources of income for an expanded, program, or alternately, to settle for a smaller program that might look very different than the one currently in place. 

Debate on the specifics of the highway program will focus on the donor-donee funding distribution issue, earmarking, and possible programmatic reorganization. Specific programs, such as the highway bridge program, can be expected to receive extensive congressional attention due to public concerns about the condition of the nation's transportation infrastructure. 

Transit industry advocates also seek additional funding in the reauthorization bill. Many supporters believe the nation is under-investing in public transit infrastructure and that should be significantly increased to deal with an existing backlog of projects and other future needs. Against this backdrop, Congress can be expected to look closely at existing transit program spending priorities and perhaps modify them. Other issues such as rural transit, paratransit, productivity, service optimization, and competition are likely to arise as well. 

Surface transportation program reauthorization also includes a number of programmatic and issue areas beyond those specifically associated with funding, highways and transit. Freight issues have been of growing importance in recent years and figure to get significantly more attention as part of the reauthorization debate. Highway safety, motor carrier safety, research, planning, and environmental issues will each be addressed in detail in the months ahead. 

This report provides background information for the reauthorization debate. Those seeking information on legislative proposals before Congress should consult CRS Report R40780, Surface Transportation Reauthorization Legislation in the 111th Congress: Summary of Selected Major Provisions, coordinated by John W. Fischer.

Date of Report: February 2, 2010
Number of Pages: 44
Order Number: R40053
Price: $29.95

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