ISTEA Preserved: House Bill Keeps Structure, Senate Bill Honors Intent
With Landmark Law Due to Expire, Committees Set to Act
By Kevin McCarty
With the September 30 expiration of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) fast approaching, Congressional Committees are accelerating their efforts to move legislation renewing the nation’s surface transportation law. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are both scheduled to meet September 17 to act on pending proposals that would renew ISTEA and largely preserve the intent and structure of the landmark 1991 law.
The House panel is poised to approve a bill, H.R. 2400, that fully conforms to the current ISTEA program structure, with the Senate Committee accomplishing many of the same outcomes in their measure, S. 1173, through a consolidation of certain existing ISTEA programs.
The pending proposals continue ISTEA’s commitment to local elected officials through provisions that invest in locally-determined and community enhancing projects, clean air improvements and preservation of existing highway, bridge and transit assets. These goals are shared by the Conference of Mayors and its member mayors and other coalition partners, such as the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties.
Throughout the year-long process of developing these proposals, mayors and other local officials and their organizations, along with many other transportation interests, have sought retention of the ISTEA program, both the structure and spirit of the 1991 law.
The House Subcommittee on Surface Transportation has already approved a 3-year ISTEA renewal bill, H.R. 2400, after making a few technical amendments. The full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is the largest committee in the history of Congress - 73 members - is preparing to act on the measure that preserves ISTEA’s program structure and boosts funding for highway and public transportation investment by about 30 percent over the next three years.
The House legislation, which is entitled "BESTEA," the acronym for "Building Efficient Surface Transportation Equity Act of 1997," proposes substantial increases in spending authority over the next three years by matching spending levels with revenues accumulating to the highway and transit trust funds. For Fiscal Year 1998, highway spending is $24.8 billion and transit spending is $5.36 billion. For Fiscal Year 1999, highway spending is $28.5 billion and transit spending is $5.8 billion. For Fiscal Year 2000, highway spending is $32 billion and transit spending is $6.33 billion. Current spending for highway programs is about $21 billion and for transit programs about $4.1 billion.
The House bill is a bipartisan effort, led by full Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (PA), that challenges the underlying assumptions on future transportation infrastructure investment contained in the recent 5-year balanced budget plan enacted in August. For several years now, Chairman Shuster has led efforts to press for Congressional action on proposals to increase investment in transportation systems, both highway and public transportation, arguing that fuel taxes and other transportation revenues should be used for increasing investment in these systems and not be diverted for other general government purposes. Earlier this year, Shuster and other committee members, with strong support from mayors and other local and state officials, narrowly failed 214-216 on an amendment to the House version of the balanced budget agreement, to increase transportation spending to levels that are set forth in the House bill before the committee. This effort was strongly opposed by House leaders and the Administration.
The higher spending levels will again be at the center of a heated debate with House Budget Committee members when this legislation is brought before the full House. This time, Chairman Shuster wants House leaders to support these levels and work with him and what is certainly an "operating majority" of the full House to commit to funding the legislation at the higher level.
The House bill also moves to address the concerns of many states by changing the funding formula that distributes funds among the states, an issue that has dominated the debate over the legislation renewing ISTEA. With the increased funding, the House bill assures that 47 states will realize an increase in transportation dollars under the bill, with most states receiving at least 95 percent return on the taxes they contribute to the program.
A majority of the senators on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Chairman John Chafee (RI), have crafted a bill, S. 1173, that generally conforms to the balanced-agreement and, as a result, proposes less highway funding than the House bill (average of $24 billion annually as compared to the House level of $28 annually). The Senate bill renews the federal highway programs for a six-year period.
Operating within these constraints, the Senate bill, in providing more equity in the distribution of funds among the states, is already drawing some opposition as certain states lose in overall funding and others gain. Under S. 1173, every state is guaranteed at least 90 percent return on the transportation taxes they contribute.
On the program structure, the Senate bill consolidates ISTEA’s five core programs into three, by merging the Interstate Maintenance Program with the National Highway System Program and by eliminating the Bridge Program. The bill does retain elements of the Bridge Program in that it requires states to maintain current spending levels (Fiscal Year 1997) on bridge rehabilitation. It continues the set-aside of at least 15 percent of these funds for off-system bridges, largely city or county bridges. The core programs under S. 1173 are the Interstate and National Highway System Program, the Surface Transportation Program and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program, known as CMAQ.
Unlike the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over both highways and public transportation, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee only has jurisdiction over the highway titles of the law. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over public transportation matters and its members are now preparing legislation renewing these programs.
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