U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, was named late Wednesday to the House-Senate Transportation Conference Committee, meaning she and 46 other members of Congress will be tasked with hammering out an agreement on a new federal transportation bill.
The group features 20 House Republicans, 13 House Democrats, eight Senate Democrats and six Senate Republicans. They will focus on reaching an agreement between the House and Senate versions of the transportation bill, which will provide reauthorization money for transportation projects across the country.
The last substantial transportation bill was passed in 2005 and expired in 2009. In the meantime, lawmakers have added money to the pot incrementally — a process that makes planning for large multiyear projects, such as the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement, uncertain.
This is the congresswoman’s first time serving on a conference committee, and Herrera Beutler said she feels grateful to be one of a handful of first-term lawmakers on the committee. Conference committees are formed when the two chambers in Congress need to reach an agreement on a particular issue.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Herrera Beutler said Thursday in a news release. “We need a bill that strengthens our nation’s transportation system and creates jobs — both paramount priorities to Southwest Washington residents.”
Major differences in the House and Senate transportation proposals include the duration of the funding plans. The House transportation bill is a five-year plan that included new drilling projects as an additional revenue source, while the Senate version only spans about two years, to account for uncertainty in gas tax revenue.
The House plan never made it to a floor vote, while the Senate plan was approved by Senators on a 74-22 vote.
“I don’t believe what’s in the House and the Senate are totally incompatible,” Herrera Beutler said of the two plans, but she said she wants to see a transportation reauthorization bill emerge that spans as many years as possible.
“I think a longer-term bill is going to give us more certainty,” she said in regard to the Columbia River Crossing, which would replace the Interstate 5 bridge, extend light rail to Clark College, and rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the river. She said it’s difficult to plan a megaproject when money comes in piece by piece and those funding windows are small.
A firm schedule hasn’t been set for the transportation conference committee, but Herrera Beutler said she thinks the lawmaking team has about a month and a half to reach an agreement.
She said it’s too soon to tell how the transportation bill will impact the Columbia River Crossing project. She did say, though, that the federal government needs to pay its share into the project.
“Overall, whether it’s our bridge or other infrastructure in our region, if it’s a federal system, the federal government has a responsibility,” Herrera Beutler said by phone on Thursday.
When it comes to state funding for the project or establishing tolls to pay for the bridge, Herrera Beutler said it’s not within her jurisdiction to make those calls. “That’s very much a state-level decision,” she said.
But she would still like to see Clark County residents be allowed a vote on whether they should help pay for the light rail portion of the project. She said the bridge project is not “all or nothing” when it comes to the light rail component, and “if this project as it’s drawn doesn’t pass muster, we need to redraw it to pass muster.”
She also said that changing the plan would not be easy.
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