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Highway and Transit Program Reauthorization

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Publication Date: December 2002

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Topic: Transportation (Highways)


Authorizing legislation for the existing federal highway, highway safety, and transit programs will expire at the end of FY2003. Reauthorization of these programs will be considered in the 1st Session of the 108th Congress. The Bush Administration is expected to send its version of a reauthorization bill to Congress along with the FY2004 budget request in early February 2003. This will start a cycle of congressional action that should conclude before October 1, 2003. The last two reauthorization bills, however, were passed well after the authorization contained in the previous Act had expired.

The current 6-year authorization, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA21) (P.L. 105-178 and P.L. 105-206), was significantly different than its predecessors in several respects. Most notably it provided for a dramatic increase in funding for federal surface transportation programs. This was in large part the result of a successful effort to link the revenue stream for the highway trust fund to significant increases in spending for the highway, highway safety, and transit programs. TEA21 provided 40% more funding than the previous 6-year program authorization. Furthermore a mechanism created by TEA21, revenue aligned budget authority (RABA), has provided the federal highway program with an additional $9.1 billion in funding over TEA21's six-year authorization period, although difficulties with this mechanism in the last session of Congress will make RABA a reauthorization issue in the coming debate.

From the public's perspective the surface transportation reauthorization is taking place against the backdrop of growing concern about congestion and sprawl in urbanized areas, and increased concern about maintaining access to the national system in rural areas. The congressional debate that will take place as part of the highway and transit program reauthorization process in the 108th Congress is shaping up primarily as a debate about money. Given the large increase in funding made available by TEA21, there appears to be an expectation in some quarters that the reauthorization under discussion should also provide for a large increase in funding. The economy, the return of the deficit, and other policy concerns, however, make such a large increase problematic.

The money question aside, there appears to be very little interest in making major changes to the overall structure of the highway, highway safety, and transit programs. Rather, the interest appears to be in tweaking these programs to allow spending for some additional activities and perhaps adding some new stand alone programs or consolidating several traffic safety programs into a single program. Among the issues likely to be considered are: allowing states greater flexibility in how they use their transportation funds; retention of the existing highway trust fund funding framework established by TEA21; financial assistance for physical infrastructure security; streamlining of environmental evaluations required by the project approval process; a new categorical grant program for highway safety; and an increased focus on reducing drunk driving and increasing seat belt use. This report is intended as a resource document for the reauthorization debate. It will not be updated.


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