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Congress reaches tentative agreement on transportation bill

Published: Thursday, June 28, 2012

Updated: Thursday, June 28, 2012 09:06


WASHINGTON - Congressional negotiators reached tentative agreement Wednesday on a long-awaited multibillion-dollar transportation bill aimed at speeding up traffic-easing projects and boosting the nation's economic recovery.

The rare bipartisan agreement was coming together with the political drama that has come to characterize this Congress, facing a Saturday midnight deadline when the government's authority to collect gas taxes and fund transportation projects is due to expire.

"We have a tentative agreement," House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., said.

Negotiators expected to work into the night to put the finishing touches on the bill.

"We still have a long night ahead of us," Mica said.

The measure, which must be approved by the House and Senate, would keep highway and transit spending at current levels through the end of fiscal year 2014.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the measure, which does not include a provision sought by House Republicans to advance the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The White House opposed that provision.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said the bill would include "significant reforms," including a provision to allow transportation agencies to "focus our highway dollars on fixing America's highways, not planting more flowers around the country."

A measure that would prevent student loan interest rates from doubling for 7 million college undergraduates was expected to be wrapped into the bill.

In a potential complication, congressional leaders were considering attaching a controversial flood insurance measure to the bill. That provision has drawn strong bipartisan opposition because it would force millions of property owners living behind levees and near dams and other flood-control facilities to buy flood insurance.

The transportation bill is likely to run into opposition from some conservative lawmakers because, with gas-tax money falling short, transportation projects also would be funded from other revenues _ such as higher employer premiums to the pension insurance agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

But other lawmakers are eager to approve a bill that would deal with two big issues on voters' minds: the economy and traffic congestion.

"It will be the bill that will put more people to work in the next two years than anything Congress does this year," Mica said.

Business groups were already pushing for speedy adoption.

"Over the coming hours we will work with members of the House and Senate, as well as the administration, to ensure this vital measure passes and is signed into law," said Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America. "After all, it isn't every day members of Congress can enact sweeping reforms, fund tens of thousands of vital jobs and give a much-needed boost to our economy with a single vote."

Officials say $20 billion in federal loans could be made available nationally over the next two years under the legislation.

But a bumpy road lies ahead for Congress, which must figure out how to fund transportation projects in the long term once this new bill expires. The 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax is no longer bringing in enough money to maintain the current level of transportation spending because more fuel-efficient vehicles use less gas.

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