A Federal Transportation Bill Is Coming… But When?

Speaking to members of the National Retail Federation earlier today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood sidestepped what's becoming one of the peskiest unanswered questions on the Hill: Will Congress delay the federal transportation bill until next year?

In his address to the retailers' group, LaHood stuck mostly to his department's progress in allocating its $48 billion share of the economic stimulus bill. That stimulus money would create so many jobs by summertime, LaHood predicted jokingly, that many Americans would be "irritated" by the sight of "people putting up orange cones" on roads slated for repair.

When the topic turned to the timing of the forthcoming transportation bill, however, LaHood offered few specifics. The former GOP congressman declined to address a report in today's CongressDaily, a subscription-only Capitol newsletter, that the six-year transportation bill "is almost certain to be punted to next year, if not significantly scaled back."

LaHood did little to quell rumors of a delay in his remarks about the uncertainty surrounding new funding sources for the bill. "There is going to be a huge debate" over covering the predicted shortfall in the federal highway trust fund, he said. "At some point there will be a bill that'll come out of Congress" that will address the funding question.

So far, the Obama administration has ruled out raising the federal gas tax as well as imposing a tax on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), deeming both options politically unpalatable during an economic recession. Asked by one retailer about alternative funding options, LaHood mentioned increasing tolls on highways, expanding public-private partnerships, and acting on the president's proposal for a national infrastructure bank -- originally conceived as a $60 billion endeavor, but given $26 billion in the recent White House budget.