National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.


 Senate transportation bill retains planning, bridge programs

By Robert J. Fogel

By a vote of 74–22, the Senate passed S. 1813, known as MAP-21, March 14. The two-year bill provides $109 billion in funding for highway and transit programs and, according to supporters of measure, would save or create nearly 3 million jobs.

“Passage of this is a major step in the enactment of a multi-year highway and transit reauthorization bill that will ensure that counties, cities and states will have access to federal funds to maintain and improve their highways, bridges and bus and rail systems,” said Larry Naake, NACo executive director. 

While NACo was concerned about a number of provisions in the bill, two major subjects were priorities. As proposed, the Senate bill eliminated the off-system bridge program as part of the bill’s focus to eliminate or consolidate dozens of programs. The bill also made it possible for the secretary of transportation, under certain circumstances, to decertify Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) between 50,000–200,000 population, subsequently eliminating local officials’ guaranteed role in the planning process. NACo successfully lobbied for amendments to S. 1813 that make it local government friendly. 

NACo’s success in getting these two bipartisan provisions included in the bill makes a real difference for counties,” said Leo Bowman, commissioner, Benton County, Wash. who chairs NACo’s Transportation Steering Committee. 

An amendment restoring funding that has been available since 1978 for off-system bridges was offered by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.) and was adopted during consideration of the bill. The amendment requires states to spend almost $650 million annually rehabilitating and rebuilding some 80,000 deficient bridges that are not on the federal highway system.

Additional language proposed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and other senators was included in the manager’s amendment to increase the likelihood that MPOs between 50,000–120,000 population would retain their MPO status and not be decertified.

Another amendment that NACo supported, offered by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), gives local governments assured access to federal transportation funds for alternative transportation projects rather than leaving total discretion with the state DOTs.

There were a host of other amendments offered though most failed.  Topics of the amendments that failed included contraception, turn back or devolving the federal highway program to the states, oil and gas exploration and the Keystone pipeline. Several unrelated amendments passed that NACo supported including providing BP settlement funds to be used for Gulf Coast restoration, reauthorizing a one-year extension of SRS and PILT payments, and a provision boosting transit benefits for commuters putting them on parity with parking benefits (see sidebar for more detail).

Legislative action now moves to the House. Efforts to pass a $260 billion five-year bill failed several weeks ago when the House could not muster enough votes to pass H.R. 7. House leadership is now working to decide whether to rewrite H.R. 7 to make it acceptable to enough Republicans to pass a bill, perhaps by reducing funding or length of the reauthorization, or to pass it by making it a bipartisan bill that could attract support from both parties. Another option under discussion is to simply take up the Senate-passed bill. 

In the meantime, both the House and Senate will have to pass a ninth extension when the highway and transit programs expire on March 31.  Many of the stakeholders are becoming concerned about missing the construction season. Assuming progress has been made on passing a multi-year bill, that extension is likely to be in the 60–90 day range.


Amendments would send funding to counties

The transportation bill also included several NACo-supported amendments that affect county governments.

PILT, SRS funding approved in Senate bill

By an 82–16 vote, the Senate approved a bipartisan amendment to the Surface Transportation Bill (S. 1813) that would fully fund the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program and provide 95 percent of FY11-level funding for the Secure Rural Schools program (SRS) for one year.  Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) offered the amendment.

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Both programs would provide critical infrastructure funding to county governments to be used directly on county road improvement and maintenance projects (in the case of the SRS program) and indirectly through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program (PILT). From years 2008–2011, more than $568 million dollars were made available to county governments for roads through the SRS program alone.

“County governments are partners with the federal government and states in providing important programs and services to the American people,” said Larry Naake, NACo executive director. “For county officials, special interests are constituents who decided to put trust in them as public servants to adopt sound fiscal policies while providing the basic services for which constituents pay.” 

Conservation Fund Reauthorized

The Senate debated a number of environment and energy amendments in the transportation bill, including reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and directing penalty fines from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill to five affected states.

The LWCF would be reauthorized until 2022 and receive $700 million for the next two years, $1.4 billion total. It is currently funded at approximately $350 million and is used for conservation easements, and grants and land acquisitions. While the LWCF is authorized to provide up to $900 million yearly, annual appropriations have reached only $700 million twice.  The language faces serious opposition in the House where deep budget cuts are the norm.

NACo supports continued funding of the LWCF with funding priority given to those areas in greatest need of open space protection.

Language in the transportation bill would send 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalty fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.  The language resembles provisions in the RESTORE Act, a bill recently introduced in the House and Senate.

The RESTORE Act deals with the penalty fines to be collected from the BP disaster under the Clean Water Act.  Under current law, money from the fines would flow into the U.S. Treasury where it would be used to pay for future oil spill cleanups and to offset deficit spending elsewhere. The RESTORE Act would redirect it to the five states.

Boost to Raising Infrastructure Capital

Included in the manager’s amendment to the transportation bill was language introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that will help local governments to raise capital for infrastructure projects. The provision would increase the bank-qualified debt limit from $10 million to $30 million. The last time the limit was raised, the first increase since 1986, was in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In ARRA, the limit was also raised to $30 million, but the provision was allowed to expire at the end of 2010. The current provision reinstates the $30 million limit from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013.

With the increase, incentives for banks to purchase municipal bonds would not be limited only to municipalities that issue $10 million or less in debt each year. As a result, many municipalities would be able to place bonds directly at financial institutions, including community banks, a move that should result in savings on interest and transaction costs.