Congress ends deadlock on highways, student loans

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After a months-long struggle filled with roadblocks, delays and U-turns, Congress passed a measure Friday to fund federal highway, transit and rail programs for the next two years in a package that included a provision to prevent federally subsidized student loan rates from doubling.

The bill, which provides more than $100 billion for federal transportation projects through September 2014, also was merged with a measure to keep subsidies intact for federal college student loan and flood insurance programs.

About 80 percent of the transportation money goes to federal highway programs, with the rest reserved for mass transit.

The package easily passed both chambers with bipartisan support — 373-52 in the House and 74-19 in the Senate — and will be sent to President Obama, who is expected to sign the bill.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica said the measure will usher in “historic reforms” by cutting red tape and consolidating or eliminating almost 70 federal programs.

“The unprecedented reforms in the transportation bill will streamline the lengthy project-approval process, consolidate or eliminate federal programs and ensure that states have more flexibility to direct limited resources to high-priority needs,” the Florida Republican said.

The measure was stalled for months until House Republicans this week gave up demands that the so-called “highway bill” include a provision for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Neb. President Obama in January rejected a previous bid for the pipeline on the grounds that more time was needed to vet alternative routes.

Keystone has strong support from business and labor groups but sparked a backlash from environmentalists and some property rights advocates.

Republicans had pushed hard for the pipeline, saying it would create thousands of jobs and foster greater domestic energy independence. Most Democrats were adamant about leaving it out of the measure, saying it was unrelated to transportation issues.

Democrats in return gave up certain environmental restrictions to streamline reviews of new highway projects to seven years from 15 years. They also dropped calls for a program that funds bike paths, pedestrian safety projects and roadway beautification efforts.

The bill retains a 18.4 cents per gallon federal tax for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel.

Highway bills, which often run for five years, typically move through Congress without great controversy. And in March, a two-year, $109 billion version sailed through the Senate with broad bipartisan support.

But efforts to renew surface transportation funding sputtered this winter in the House, where Republicans rejected their leadership’s five-year, $260 billion version before the measure could even get to the floor for a vote. Funding for surface transportation projects was to expire at the end of March before Congress passed a three-month extension.

Pressure on lawmakers to reach a compromise has intensified in recent weeks with federal transportation funding set to expire Sunday. Members of both parties were eager to avoid a politically precarious shutdown of highway projects — and the loss of construction jobs.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat who co-wrote the initial Senate transportation bill with Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said the measure would save and create almost 3 million jobs.

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