Search Penny Hill Press

Thursday, January 26, 2012

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
Section Research Manager

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 federal surface transportation programs. 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 the programs, although a rate increase could help in the near-term. The choice for policymakers, therefore, is to find new sources of income for the current-size program or an expanded program, or alternately, to settle for a smaller program that might look very different from the one currently in place. The growing consensus on the need to reduce the federal budget deficit will likely influence this debate.

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. Program consolidation, restructuring, and elimination are expected to receive extensive congressional attention due to public concerns about the condition of the nation’s transportation infrastructure and the efficiency of existing programs. The speed of project delivery and environmental review streamlining are of growing interest in Congress. Congress also can be expected to look closely at transit program spending levels and priorities. Freight and passenger rail issues have also been of growing importance in recent years and figure to get significantly more attention than in past reauthorization debates.

This report will not track legislative action on surface transportation reauthorization. The CRS legislative tracking product is CRS Report R42120, Surface Transportation Reauthorization Legislation in the 112th Congress: Summary of Selected Major Provisions, by Robert S. Kirk et al.

Date of Report: January 12, 2012
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: R41512
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.