WASHINGTON – Maryland would receive $3.38 billion over six years under a federal highway and transit spending bill that passed the House this week, a $721 million increase over funding in the previous six-year transportation bill.
The House vote Thursday moves Congress one step closer to reauthorizing a transportation bill that has been kept alive with short-term extensions since it expired in 2003, a temporary fix that highway officials said has made long-term planning difficult.
The bill contains funding for various projects in Maryland, including $10 million for the Intercounty Connector, as well as authorization for a Metro Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, among other projects.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Missy Cassidy, director of policy and government affairs at the Maryland Department of Transportation. “We will continue to pursue an aggressive highway and transit program in our state.”
The “Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users,” which passed the House by a 417-9 vote Thursday, authorizes highway, transit, rail and road-safety funding for all states through fiscal 2009.
It increases funding from its predecessor, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, by 42 percent, said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chief sponsor of the bill.
But TEA 21 expired in September 2003 and has had to be extended temporarily six times because of conflicts between the House, the Senate and the White House. In the last Congress, for example, a conference committee on the bill was not able to agree on a funding level.
But a spokesman with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said the committee is expected to match the House’s overall funding of $284 billion over six years when it marks up the bill Wednesday.
The White House has said it endorses the House figure, which mirrors the amount allocated in President Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget.
The House bill does not directly touch one of the most contentious issues — the guaranteed rate of return that leaves some states getting less back from the federal government than they send it in taxes.
States currently get at least 90.5 cents for every dollar they pay in tax revenues to the Highway Trust Fund. But “donee,” or recipient, states get back more than a dollar on each dollar they given. Many states in the Midwest and Northeast are donee states.
Maryland, meanwhile, is among the “donor” states, those that just get back the minimum 90.5 cents on the dollar, said state highway officials.
Instead of addressing the donor/donee issue directly, by raising the 90.5 percent minimum return rate, the House bill increases the overall share of funding that can be considered for distribution among the states. The previous law marked 84 percent of the total fund to go back to the states. The House bill would raise that level to 92.6 percent.
Cassidy welcomed the House change.
“This helps us because it makes the federal funding more certain,” Cassidy said.
An official at a Maryland engineering organization said the $318 billion that the Senate pushed for last year was “ideal,” but he said the lower level in the current House bill was better than no bill at all.
“I think that is a compromise that most states could live with,” said Jim Otradovec, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies/Maryland.
Some local engineering and transportation groups said repeated delays in reauthorizing federal funding have created uncertainty for state transportation projects. Because of that, the state has been “conservative” in going forward with major projects, said Joel Oppenheimer of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Maryland Office.
Another highway official agreed.
“It has a serious effect because you have a lot of projects in the development stage and when you don’t have a reauthorization, they tend not to jump to the next phase of development,” said Brian Holmes, executive director of Maryland Highway Contractors Association.
But Holmes said he expects the funding level to increase before the bill is signed into law.
“You ultimately need a $300 billion of guaranteed highway funding in order for all of the states to sign on as a deal,” Holmes said. “Short of that, it’s just going to be unacceptable for Maryland.”
Maryland will not “get as much bang into our buck,” especially if inflation sets in and steel prices increase, he said.
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