Two Californians appointed to negotiate final highway bill

Disabled Californians using public transit in Los Angeles County would continue paying the same fees and the state could get a congestion exemption from federal carpool lane rules under a six-year highway funding bill approved by the U.S. House.

The House on Thursday voted 363-164 on legislation to reauthorize funding for the country’s federal highway programs for six years. The legislation authorizes a total of $261 billion for highways, $55 billion for transit programs and about $9 billion for safety programs.

Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) were the only members of the 53-person California House delegation to vote against the bill. A spokesman for Rohrabacher said the congressman didn’t like that the bill included reauthorization of the Export-Import bank, which helps American businesses operate overseas.

The House significantly changed the Senate version of the bill before passing it and the two chambers must meet to resolve the differences in what is known as a conference committee. House members left Thursday for a weeklong recess, but negotiations for a final bill could begin before Thanksgiving.

In the bill’s current form, California could receive more than $26.1 billion for highways and $8.9 billion for transit programs between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2021, according to staff for Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk).

Napolitano was among the 12 Democratic House members whom Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) chose to join negotiations. She is the only Californian of the bunch and is the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee. Napolitano will be joined in the negotiations by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), the only Californian among the 16 Republican House negotiators and chairman of the committee’s Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee.

Napolitano, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) sponsored an amendment on the House floor Wednesday that would allow California to get a waiver from a federal requirement that high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes maintain an average speed above 45 mph 90% of the time during peak hours. States that meet the speed standard receive additional infrastructure funding.

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Napolitano said 60% of California’s highways don’t meet that standard, citing a study by the state that blamed accidents, weather and other unpredictable events for the slow speeds.

“This standard does not take into account the specific transportation concerns of each state,” she said in a speech on the House floor. "California will be forced to spend limited resources on transportation projects that do not meet the needs of the general public.”

Another addition to the bill sponsored by Napolitano allows para-transit systems that combine more than 40 fixed-route transit systems into one coordinated para-transit provider, such as Access Services in Los Angeles, to continue using a tiered, distance-based coordinated para-transit fare system. The Department of Transportation is requiring each transit provider to change their fare system to be based on the specific trip taken by each rider.

Napolitano said in an interview that the department’s requirement is confusing, especially to those whose trip will use more than one transit system.

“People won’t know, if I go across a line what am I expected to pay from here to over there? It’s just too much chaos,” she said.

Napolitano’s addition allows Access Services to continue offering its current fare system. For riders traveling less than 20 miles the fare is $2.75, and for riders traveling more than 20 miles it is $3.50.

Denham also added provisions to the bill to streamline the environmental review process for local transportation projects by allowing county and state transportation departments to perform some required federal reviews; require new tank cars carrying flammable liquids to have thermal “blankets” to shield their contents if nearby cars are on fire; and encourage states and landscape architects designing highway and freeway medians to plant and cultivate vegetation preferred by pollinating species.

The House bill includes several other items that either directly affect Californians or were proposed by the delegation. Get those details here.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

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