In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate approved a $109-billion transportation bill Wednesday that boosts Los Angeles’ efforts to speed expansion of its bus and rail system.
The measure passed 74 to 22, underscoring the political appeal of a bill that supporters say will create jobs and reduce traffic congestion.
The bill, possibly one of the few major pieces of legislation that could be signed into law before the fall election, maintains the current level of funding for highway and transit projects for two years.
“It probably will be the major jobs bill of the year,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
The bill would significantly expand a federal loan program crucial to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s efforts to build a dozen local transit projects in one decade instead of in three.
Among the projects are the subway extension to the Westside, a rail extension to Los Angeles International Airport, a downtown connection for rail lines and expansion of transit lines in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.
House Republican leaders have struggled to unify a majority behind their own transportation bill. House leaders are considering bringing up “something like the Senate bill,” but are still “working toward coalescing around a longer-term approach with needed reforms,” said a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
The Senate vote — along with the urgency to act before the government’s authority to collect gas taxes expires at the end of the month, shutting down highway projects — increases the pressure on the House to pass a bill quickly.
The Senate bill also would provide financial incentives to states that crack down on distracted driving, require ignition interlock devices for DUI offenders and establish graduated driver licensing programs that restrict teenagers’ driving privileges. It also would impose new safety rules on interstate passenger buses in response to a number of high-profile tour bus crashes.
Unlike the last big transportation bill, passed in 2005, the new bill isn’t filled with lawmakers’ pet projects like Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” that drew widespread criticism.
“People like to say watching a bill become law is like watching somebody making sausage,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Environment and Public Works Committee chairwoman who led the Senate debate on the bill. “It’s a lot messier than that.”
The bill drew opposition from some conservatives, who said it used “budget gimmicks” to maintain funding for projects when the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax isn’t bringing in as much money because of greater use of vehicles that are more fuel-efficient.
The expansion of the loan program is expected to remain in a final bill because it enjoys the backing of business, labor and, perhaps most notably, Boxer, who will play a key role in writing any final version.
Once the bill becomes law, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to be among the first at the Department of Transportation’s door seeking about $3 billion in loans to help carry out a $15-billion expansion of its transit system.
Officials say that $20 billion in federal loans could be made available nationally over the next two years under the legislation. Loans to the MTA would be repaid from the half-penny sales tax increase approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008.
But the loans alone will not be enough.
Los Angeles needs additional support from Sacramento or Washington. But the city’s hopes for federal interest subsidies for bonds appear to be a long shot. State legislation and another public vote to extend the half-cent sales tax beyond its 2039 expiration may be more likely.
Los Angeles also is relying on federal funding — separate from loans — for new rail projects. President Obama, in his new budget, has proposed $50 million for extending the subway to the Westside and $31 million to connect the Gold Line to the Blue and Exposition lines. But the money must be appropriated by Congress.
Still, expansion of the loan program is a victory for Villaraigosa, who made numerous trips to Washington to lobby for his “America Fast Forward” initiative.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who opposed the bill, expressed concern about the risks to taxpayers from expanding the loan program. “They told us we would never lose any money on Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac,” he said.
The bill would allow for extension of the 2015 deadline — but not beyond 2018 — for railroads to install collision avoidance systems on trains carrying passengers and toxic materials if the transportation secretary determines that implementation appears unfeasible.
Congress in 2008 mandated the systems after a Metrolink commuter train collided with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, killing 25 people and injuring more than 130. Metrolink is moving to complete installation of its $201-million collision avoidance system by mid-2013.