Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Approves 6-year Highway Bill Reauthorization

Research Programs Protected during Markup

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works yesterday approved S. 2322, the “MAP-21 Reauthorization Act.”. The bill authorizes funding for existing federal highway programs for fiscal years 2015-2020, at current levels, adjusted for inflation each year.

The public display of bipartisanship can be attributable to two main factors: 1) a genuine desire by both Democratic and Republican Senators to address the anticipated shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund; and 2) the fact that the bill includes no financing mechanism to pay for the new authorizations. The hard work of producing a financing mechanism now falls to the Senate Finance Committee, and there are no easy answers to the vexing question of how to pay for increased transportation investment.

Despite the appearance of a smooth and expeditious markup session, however, there was a significant amount of scrambling behind the scenes that was spurred by the release of the bill on Monday, when the transportation research community learned of plans to end the current practice of authorizing the $400 million USDOT transportation research portfolio from the Highway Trust Fund. As originally drafted, the bill would have instead authorized research from general fund appropriations. According to the Research Education and Training Reauthorization Coalition (RETRC), a group of 15 universities that operate University Transportation Centers (UTCs), the move would have resulted in “further cuts to the program in the coming years, creating instability and uncertainty to the long-range research objectives of the programs.”

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of RETRC and other organizations in the transportation research community, the Committee adopted a manager’s amendment that included a provision offered by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) to move $250 million of the annual research portfolio back into the Highway Trust Fund. This amendment comes with a cost, as many of the research programs had their authorization levels significantly reduced to fit within the $250 million total. But under the amendment, the entire $72.5 million funding level for the UTC program — the amount equal to its current authorization level — would be fully authorized from the Trust Fund.

RETRC and other organizations have argued that transportation research, education and training are vital, core components of the nation’s transportation system. A statement issued by RETRC argues that “investments in transportation education and research are essential to addressing not only pressing imminent transportation challenges, but also critical long term needs which are vital to the economy, trade, commerce, and individual mobility.”

A significant amount of work remains to move the highway bill through the Senate, as three other committees (Commerce, Banking and Finance) must mark up the provisions that fall under their respective jurisdictions. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has yet to announce a schedule for consideration of its version of the legislation, but staff are working on a draft.

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