U.S. Senate passes highway bill, extension of payments to forest counties

2012-03-14T19:30:00Z 2012-03-14T20:18:05Z U.S. Senate passes highway bill, extension of payments to forest countiesBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Missoulian State Bureau missoulian.com

HELENA – The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed a $109 billion, two-year federal highway bill, one that Sen. Max Baucus said would provide Montana with $400 million in federal highway money annually.

Both Baucus and fellow Democrat Sen. Jon Tester voted for the bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 74-22.

The bill cannot become law unless it also passes the Republican-controlled House and is signed into law by President Barack Obama. Politico reported Wednesday that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “has indicated he may consider the Senate bill or something similar to it.”

Baucus, who helped steer the bill through the Senate, helped write the policy framework as a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which unanimously approved it in November. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus said he came up with a bipartisan plan to “responsibly pay for the investments” in the bill.

“Highways are our lifeblood in Montana, which is why this bill is important for good-paying jobs, our small businesses and our families,” he said. “There’s very little under the Big Sky that doesn’t depend on our highways, which is why I’ve fought so hard to bring the highway bill to the finish line.”

Tester praised its passage, saying: “I’m pleased the Senate passed this bipartisan bill to put folks to work rebuilding our infrastructure,” he said. “While the House argues with itself, the Senate is coming together to make smart investments that support our economy and create jobs.”

The current highway bill expires March 31. Baucus said the last highway bill, passed in 2005, brought more than $2.3 billion for Montana highway construction. That amounted to a $7 return for every $1 invested, he said, and helped create and sustain 18,000 good-paying jobs across the state.

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Here are some of the bill’s provisions for Montana, according to Baucus:

  • Cutting red tape to speed up infrastructure projects and to put to work faster.
  • Including two “vital programs” for Montana’s rural forest counties: Restoring the Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes. Together, the two programs provided nearly $50 million to Montana counties last year.
  • Renewing the Land and Water Conservation Fund through 2022, with $700 million in funding in each of the next two fiscal years to provide funds and matching grants for federal, state and local governments to buy land and water and easements on land and water.
  • Increasing the state’s rate of return from $2.20 to $2.26 for every dollar Montanans contribute to in fuel taxes to the Highway Trust Fund.
  • Supporting highways, bridges, off-system bridges in counties, metropolitan planning and land use in several cities, along with alternative transportation opportunities, federal land access and Indian reservation roads across the state.
  • Funding for 37 bus transit systems across the state.
  • Focusing on improving safety and reducing the fatality rate on rural highways.
  • Providing local areas and states with more autonomy for spending decisions.

Baucus’ office released comments from representatives of Montana contractors, businesses, labor unions and an Indian reservation in support of the bill.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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