The Senate on June 29 gave its final approval to Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (HR.4348/S.1813 or MAP-21), legislation to reauthorize federal surface transportation programs. The measure also includes national flood insurance reauthorization and student loan interest rate provisions. The bill, passed on a 74-19 vote, will be sent to the White House with approval of the legislation by the House of Representatives.

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran voted for final passage of a measure that will allow Mississippi to move forward with transportation projects that rely on federal-aid highway construction and highway safety programs.

“This legislation assures states like Mississippi that they can move forward with important highway and transportation projects without the prospect of federal support lapsing. It creates a two-year window in which states and local governments can better budget for these projects, which are important to  commerce, public safety and, ultimately, local economies,” Cochran said. “It is not perfect legislation, but it is better than another short-term extension.”

The reauthorization of federal highway programs extends through September 2014 and represents the longest extension of these programs since the last long-term authorization for highway programs expired in 2009.

The Senate-House conference agreement on the $120 billion bill includes significant changes, including streamlining environmental review requirements that have sometimes delayed projects for as many as 15 years. It also exempts emergency road, highway and bridge construction from review under the National Environmental Policy Act. During Senate consideration of this legislation, Cochran supported language that called for all environmental reviews, approvals, licensing, and permit requirements to be completed expeditiously following a disaster.

The final bill also modifies a Senate provision authored by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin and cosponsored by Cochran to provide cities and counties with continued access to federal Transportation Enhancement (TE) and Safe Routes to School projects, now termed “Transportation Alternatives” in the legislation. Transportation Alternatives resources can be dedicated to local transportation needs including bicycle lanes, pedestrian trails and sidewalks.

“It remains important that communities continue to have access to federal resources to implement transportation improvements such as biking and pedestrian infrastructure that are meaningful to public safety, economic development and quality of life at the local level,” Cochran said. “While the conference report left room for improvement regarding Transportation Alternatives, I am pleased that the language requiring a competitive process for local entities to apply for these funds was included.”

Finally, the highway reauthorization bill retains the RESTORE Act, which the Senate added to the bill in March. Like the original bill cosponsored by Cochran and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the RESTORE Act provisions follow the recommendations from Gulf Coast restoration groups and establish a Gulf Coast Restoration Fund to provide Gulf Coast states -- Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Texas -- with 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. These funds will be available for locally-directed restoration projects. The remaining 20 percent of the fines paid by BP and other parties held responsible for the April 2010 oil spill would be directed to the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

The conference report on HR.4348 retains provisions Cochran supported to further highway transportation policy and needs in Mississippi, including:

  • Secure Rural Schools.

The conference report retains Senate language reauthorizing this program for one year, through FY2012. The program provides funding to counties as compensation for the amount of tax-exempt federal land in a county. Cochran has cosponsored similar stand-alone legislation to benefit Mississippi counties with extensive national forest lands. The Secure Rural Schools funding has been used by counties to support public schools, road improvements and other critical county services. 

  • Farm Vehicle Regulations.

The conference report amends an exemption for the transportation of agricultural commodities by increasing the permitted travel radius from 100 air miles to 150 air miles. In addition, it preserves Senate language for a narrow exemption from federal requirements for covered farm vehicles. This conference report adopts the Senate language directing the Secretary of Agriculture to study and report to Congress on the safety impacts of the covered farm vehicle exemption.