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Senate committee passes six-year transportation bill this morning

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) passed their portion of the transportation reauthorization bill out of committee this morning after a short one-hour session. The amended six-year $243 billion bill does little to improve on the draft version released earlier this week, but several key amendments could strengthen the bill as it moves to the floor of the Senate.

Updated: 5/28 with full summary below. -Ed.  The bill that was approved by the committee today is mostly unchanged from what was released earlier this week, with a few exceptions detailed below. There were a handful of amendments agreed upon in advance that were accepted as a group with no discussion.

As we pointed out in our statement Tuesday, the EPW bill takes positive steps to repair and replace federal-aid bridges not on the National Highway System, extend innovative financing to support local economic development along transit lines and increase the share of the Transportation Alternatives Program under local control, among a few other highlights. But this bill as passed today still has room to grow in providing communities access to resources they need to support our economy and improve opportunities for Americans to prosper.

The most prominent change was offered by Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) which cuts 25 percent ($250 million) from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program in order to fund the federal research program that was booted out of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) in the bill introduced by the EPW Committee and subject it to the annual appropriations process.

After the bill and amendments were approved by a quick voice vote early this morning, members of the committee stayed to offer remarks and discuss possible amendments that deserve debate and will hopefully be included in the bill in the days and weeks to come as it moves through the Senate process.

One proposed bipartisan amendment discussed by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) would give local communities across the country greater access to federal transportation funds for innovative projects via a new in-state competitive grant program. (Note: This would be the Senate companion of the bill announced in an event yesterday by House Reps. Davis and Titus.)

An amendment from Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) would improve local and regional access to the Projects of National and Regional Significance by lowering the minimum total project cost (currently $350 million) so that the program focuses on project outcomes rather than unnecessarily driving up the cost of projects.

An amendment from Senators Gillibrand (D-NY) and Merkley (D-OR) would make local governments eligible for the new American Transportation Awards program, which is an $125 million annual general appropriations discretionary grant program that focuses on advancing innovative solutions to achieving our national transportation goals. (Currently only states, MPOs and tribes are eligible.)

Today was just step one, as jurisdiction over transportation in the Senate is split between four committees. EPW, Commerce, Banking and Finance — which is responsible for the biggest question mark of all: how to fund a bill that needs billions in new revenues merely to stay at current funding levels.