Deal nears on federal highway bill, which affects funds available if transportation sales tax passes
By David Pendered
Congress is inching closer to a Friday adoption of a federal transportation bill that could give metro Atlanta voters some assurances that they won’t be going it alone in paying for road and transit projects if the transportation sales tax is approved.
Based on a tentative deal reached Wednesday, a two-year federal bill would likely include funds that would help build projects in metro Atlanta. The proposed transportation sales tax envisions the region using proceeds of the sales tax to draw down more federal funds than now is possible.
An insight into the reason a federal transportation bill is crucial to the completion of local projects emerged Monday during a discussion of four federal grants that were addressed in a MARTA committee meeting.
So far, Washington has provided only about 75 percent of the grant funding expected from two programs of the Federal Transit Administration, according to Knox O’Callaghan, MARTA’s director of grants programs. O’Callaghan said he expected the rate would reach 100 percent once a federal transportation bill is approved.
O’Callaghan raised the issue during his presentation of a resolution to the Business Management Committee of MARTA’s board that would allow MARTA to accept $96.8 million in federal funding for four programs related to maintenance and operation of the transit system.
MARTA would need to provide $24.2 million to draw down the four grants, O’Callaghan said.
The committee approved the measure and sent it to the full board for consideration at its July 9 meeting.
The MARTA situation is a small example of the extent to which the metro Atlanta project list is dependent on federal funding.
The 10-county region is counting on the federal government to pay nearly 12 percent of the total $7.1 billion cost (in today’s dollars) of the road and transit projects to be built if voters approve a 1 percent sales tax for transportation.
The federal payment is based on current funding formulas. But those formulas have been up in the air as a wing of the Republican Party has balked at continuing the nation’s transportation program in its current form.
Some lawmakers have suggested that no transportation dollars be provided by the federal government for any transportation projects.
According to washingtonpost.com, both Republicans and Democrats compromised to reach a possible deal on Wednesday. The nation faces a June 30 deadline for Congress to act. Without action, the federal gas tax would be suspended and the federal funding of transportation construction projects around the country would have stopped.
Here’s how washingtonpost.com described the settlement:
“In the final days before a deadline, Republicans dropped their demands to piggyback onto the bill approval for the Keystone oil pipeline, as well as relaxation of proposed restrictions on coal ash.
“In return, Democrats gave up on $1.4 billion for conservation and agreed to allow states more leeway in how they use money that was once mandated for landscaping, bike improvements and pedestrian walkways.”
Leaders of both sides claimed victory:
- House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the bill includes major reforms that “focus our highway dollars on fixing America’s highways, not planting more flowers around the country,” according to a report in latimes.com.
- Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.), who led the talks, said, “I am so glad that House Republicans met Democrats half way, as Senate Republicans did months ago,” according to foxbusiness.com
President Obama is expected to sign the bill if it is delivered in its present form. Previously, the White House has said the president would veto a bill if it included the Keystone provision, which would allow construction of an oil pipeline to carry oil from tar sands in Canada to a facility in Port Arthur, Texas.