Herrera Beutler: Compromise drove transportation bill

By Andrea Damewood and Stevie Mathieu

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Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler said the compromise on the transportation bill reached Wednesday includes some provisions she's happy about, and some she's not — but that's to be expected when Democrats and Republicans sit down to hammer out their differences in a high-profile piece of legislation.

The first-term Republican representative from Camas pointed out that, under the compromise bill, $500 million would be reauthorized for a grant program that could help finance the Columbia River Crossing project. The previous transportation bill had only allowed $356 million for the grant program, which doles out money based on a project's national and regional significance.

"From day one, I have said that the federal government must be prepared to pay its fair share of replacing the (Interstate 5) bridge," she said.

The $500 million allotment for all megaprojects nationwide could send money the CRC's way, but it's likely to be far less than what the $3.5 billion project needs. Project officials as recently as this month told state lawmakers that they're banking on $400 million to $500 million from the Projects of Regional and National Significance account -- or one year's allotment for all of the United States.

As U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg said in an interview with Bike Portland last December: "The truth is, one thing we're seeing all over the country is there are still a lot of places that want to see a lot of big and grand projects and the scale of funding that's available at the state and national level is just not what it used to be. So that bigger conflict is looming in places all over the country. Certainly, with the CRC, that's been the issue all along."

Project leaders have said that they can phase construction to build as cash flows in over a number of years from a variety of sources.

That's not enough to convince CRC critic and Portland economist Joe Cortright.

"CRC has no contingency plan — they've never said what happens, or how they will get the money, if the federal government provides less than $400 million for the highway portion," he wrote in an email to The Columbian on Thursday, adding that the states would be left on the hook for the gap.

Congress' transportation compromise was reached Wednesday night and still must pass through the House and Senate, but "it's in a really good place" to do so, Herrera Beutler said. The compromise legislation gives Congress the go-ahead to spend more than $100 billion over the next two years on surface transportation and infrastructure projects.

Trails, streamlined provisions

Herrera Beutler was recently appointed to the special transportation committee tasked with reconciling differences between the transportation proposals presented by the mostly Democratic Senate and the mostly Republican House. This was Herrera Beutler's first time serving on a bill reconciliation committee.

Herrera Beutler said she's happy that the nation's Recreational Trails Program was safeguarded in the bill. At one point, lawmakers wanted to "wipe that program right out," she said, but "we were able to protect that, and that was bipartisan. There are a lot of folks in our area that utilize trails."

The compromise bill also would dedicate Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund money for dredging and upkeep of waterways and ports. And, it would streamline the administrative process for transportation projects, which means the average amount of time it takes to complete a transportation project would be reduced.

"It's basic, good government reform," she said of the streamlining provision, adding that important oversight rules wouldn't be circumvented. "You just don't have to do it multiple times."

The transportation streamlining provision was one of the trade-offs during negotiations on the bill. Democrats allowed the Republicans' streamlining plan while Republicans gave up their provision affirming a controversial oil pipeline project and another provision to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic ash generated by coal-fired power plants.

The transportation bill also includes language to keep down the interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduates, which are provided to low-income students. The 3.4 percent interest rate established by Congress five years ago was expected to double on Sunday if lawmakers didn't act.

Herrera Beutler said she supports keeping the interest rate low and was comfortable with including that provision in the transportation bill because it was an issue that had already been vetted and debated in both chambers of Congress.

"I don't think we should double the student loan interest rate," she said. "That's important."

Limited by resources

Herrera Beutler said she wishes the transportation bill could authorize money for a longer period of time, but "everybody wishes we had more money to work with. The economy's not doing well, and I don't want to raise taxes and we have a certain amount of money to work with."

She also noted one provision in the new bill that requires truck drivers to implement new technologies, which she said would end up creating a financial burden for independent truck drivers. That provision was watered down a bit, but "I would have stripped that completely," she said. "I fought that mandate tooth and nail."

During her time on the committee, Herrera Beutler was approached by environmental, recreation and forestry groups that wanted the transportation bill to include $700 million a year for land and water conservation. She didn't support the idea of including that in the transportation proposal, and the conservation provision was ultimately killed in the compromise bill.

The special transportation committee was made up of 20 House Republicans, 13 House Democrats, eight Senate Democrats and six Senate Republicans who were working against a June 30 deadline.

In the end, lawmakers on both sides had to bend, and "there was only so much I could do," Herrera Beutler said. The committee's willingness to compromise "represents that Congress can still function," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.