WASHINGTON -- The House Public Works and Transportation Committee overwhelmingly approved the $153.5 billion highway bill yesterday without taking action on any major amendments that would have permitted the leveraging of federal funds with state and local bonds.
Because of the committee's rush to enact the bill before the current highway program expires on Sept. 30, Rep. Robert Borski, D-Pa., said after the committee markup that he decided not to offer a major leveraging amendment he had been contemplating.
His amendment would have created either state or federal revolving loan funds to issue bonds and loans to finance up to $60 billion of transportation infrastructure projects in the next five years. As envisioned by Rep. Borski, the funds would have been seeded with the $6.6 billion a year the committee is proposing to raise with a 5-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax increase.
"I wouldn't have gotten to first base" with the amendment, he said. "The bill was moving so fast, it got beyond us. We just didn't have time to flesh the idea out and get the committee's leaders to pay attention," he said.
The amendment also could have generated a "whole lot of problems," questions and controversy that could have delayed the bill, he said, and likely would have been opposed by the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB opposed creation of the $2 billion a year state revolving loan program included in the Clean Water Act of 1987.
Rep. Borski said he intends to propose an amendment to the highway bill when it reaches the House floor next week requiring the Transportation Department to study the revolving fund idea and report back on its feasibility for transportation programs within six or nine months.
"Then perhaps the idea can be explored" in a more measured way by Congress, he said. He denied that the opportunity for passing such an innovative financing program will have passed with the enactment of the landmark highway bill, saying it is still "far from sure" that the gas tax increase will be signed into law by President Bush. If the tax increase dies this year, it could still be linked to the revolving loan program in future proposals, he said.
Besides the Borski amendment, opposition from committee leaders forced the withdrawal of another amendment to leverage federal funds by allowing states to use the bill's proposed 35% funding for toll road projects to provide guaranteed loans to private toll road developers.
Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., offered the amendment, but backed down after surface transportation subcommittee Chairman Norm Mineta, D-Calif., said he did not believe the committee should be "putting the full faith and credit of the federal government behind risky projects." Committee Chairman Robert Roe, D-N.J., said the committee should have further time to "look into" the idea.
One amendment approved before the committee cleared the bill by 49-to-7 vote yesterday would permit more state revenue bond offerings backed by toll collections. The amendment ensures that states can continue charging tolls without penalty on federally approved toll roads after they have paid off the original bond issues that are backed by the toll revenues. Under current law, states must return their federal grants if they choose to continue charging the tolls.
The amendment would free billions of dollars of toll revenues to be used for additional bond issues after the outstanding bonds are retired, congressional staff said.
The bill now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee for action on the proposed gas tax increase. The committee has five legislative days to act on the bill.
Congressional aides said committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., would prefer to approve only the gas tax increase and keep most amendments off the bill. But he and House leaders have not decided on the best way to proceed, the aides said.