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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis January 13, 2012
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Legislative Issues Facing The Next Congress
BY ROBERT HEALY, APTA Vice President-Government Affairs

Following one of the more tumultuous years in Washington, DC, in recent memory, APTA members will need to maintain their strong and effective advocacy in order to advance the industry’s legislative agenda in 2012!

The election cycle of 2010 produced a more conservative Congress in 2011, with a greater focus on reducing the federal deficit and federal spending generally. While APTA and its coalition partners pushed for passage of a well funded, multimodal, long-term surface transportation bill, Congress spent the early part of the year completing appropriations bills for the federal fiscal year that had begun six months earlier and much of the summer fighting over legislation that tied an increase in the debt limit on government borrowing to long-term deficit reduction.

Congress finally provided a six-month extension of public transit and highway authorizing law two weeks before the expiration of the existing law, and it was mid-November before the annual appropriations bill for the federal fiscal year that began in October was passed and enacted into law. The annual public transit funding bill that was finally passed provided a modest increase over prior year transit funding, in contrast to the early draft House proposal that would have cut transit and other surface transportation programs by nearly 35 percent.

When Congress returns in mid-January, its focus will immediately turn to revisiting the temporary extension of the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid payment bill that was passed on Dec. 23, 2011, and is set to expire on Feb. 29. That bill will hopefully provide an opportunity for Congress to restore the transit commute benefit tax to the same level now provided for parking, as well as the tax credit refund that transit agencies had previously received for use of natural gas. Both of these transit favorable tax provisions expired on Dec. 31 and were not included in the two-month payroll tax extension passed before adjournment.

In advocating for equity in the commuter tax benefit, APTA has argued that federal tax policy should not favor one mode over another, and that the tax incentive for use of natural gas is one of the best ways to reduce our nation’s dependence on imported foreign oil.

Meanwhile, both houses of Congress are expected to continue the effort to advance a multi-year surface transportation bill before the most recent extension expires on March 31. While APTA has advocated for a six-year authorization bill that more than doubles the existing federal investment in public transit and creates a new $50 billion high-speed intercity passenger rail program, Congress is struggling just to raise funds for a program that provides modest increases in just the transit and highway programs.

In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee has approved a highway title that would extend the current highway programs at current funding, plus inflation, through the end of Fiscal Year 2013. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee is expected to mark up the transit title of the bill soon after Congress returns in January. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is also working on portions of the bill dealing with railroads, including provisions relating to positive train control on the nation’s commuter railroads. The Banking Committee title of the bill is also expected to authorize a program through FY 2013, like the highway title approved by the EPW Committee. Separately, the Senate Finance Committee needs to approve its title of the bill providing an estimated $14 billion needed to ensure the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund through the end of FY 2013.

In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to act on its version of the authorization bill soon after Congress returns as well. The House leadership has talked about a five-year authorization bill that would preserve current funding levels for transit and highways and be funded in part with new revenues from expanded domestic oil exploration and drilling leasing fees. The House bill is expected to include provisions related to positive train control, but it is not expected to include substantial funding for high-speed intercity passenger rail.

After both houses of Congress complete action on surface transportation bills, those bills will need to go to a House/Senate conference committee to resolve differences before a single bill can be approved by each house and sent to the president for his signature, hopefully before the current extension expires at the end of March.

Separately, the president will submit his budget proposal for FY 2013 in early February, which will start the process where the House and Senate develop FY 2013 budget resolutions, each of which ultimately guides the development of annual appropriations bills.

While all of this is occurring in Washington, the election season will be in full swing. Republican primaries and caucuses will be held throughout the winter and spring, and the Democratic and Republican conventions during the summer will produce presidential candidates from both parties. The volatility of recent elections is likely to be repeated and congressional campaign committees from both houses of Congress are expected to compete fiercely for the majority in each body.

With automatic sequestration cuts set to be imposed at the start of calendar year 2013 under last year’s deficit reduction supercommittee, Congress is likely to revisit the tax and spending debate in an effort to minimize those automatic cuts, either during the regular session or a lame duck session after the November elections.

Whatever the outcome on all of these issues, one thing is for sure. APTA members and other advocates for public transportation, including high-speed passenger rail, will need to reach out regularly to every member of the House and Senate to make an effective case for adequate investment in the nation’s infrastructure. Our effort must begin in January, including APTA’s Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, in March, and continue throughout the year, with constant contact at the district level as well as within the halls of Congress. Investment in our public transportation infrastructure will serve the nation for years to come; it will create and provide an important link to jobs, and it is the right thing to do.
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