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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Surface Transportation Program Reauthorization Issues for the 112th Congress

Robert S. Kirk, Coordinator
Specialist in Transportation Policy

William J. Mallett
Specialist in Transportation Policy

David Randall Peterman
Analyst in Transportation Policy

John Frittelli
Specialist in Transportation Policy

Linda Luther
Analyst in Environmental Policy

James E. McCarthy
Specialist in Environmental Policy

Brent D. Yacobucci
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy

The law authorizing federal surface transportation programs expired at the end of FY2009, but Congress has failed to enact a new authorization. Surface transportation programs continue to operate on the basis of authority provided in extension legislation.

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 were enacted well behind schedule.

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 this is no longer the case. 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 from the one currently in place.

One perennial subject of debate concerning the highway program is whether grants to individual states are in line with the taxes those states’ motorists pay into the highway trust fund—the socalled donor-donee issue. The use of earmarks and possible programmatic reorganization will likely be prominent concerns in committee discussions of reauthorization. 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. Congress also can be expected to look closely at transit program spending levels and priorities.

Freight issues have also been of growing importance in recent years and figure to get significantly more attention as part of the reauthorization debate.

Date of Report: December 1, 2010
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: R41512
Price: $29.95

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