Transportation bill stymied in Congress

Sen. Charles Schumer talks to editors and reporters

Sen. Charles Schumer talks to editors and reporters at Newsday in Melville. (April 30, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz)

May will be a crucial month for a stalled federal transportation bill that would give Nassau and Suffolk commuters a tax break, fund critical capacity improvements on the LIRR and make dangerous Long Island roads safer, Sen. Charles Schumer said Monday.

In a meeting with Newsday reporters and editors, Schumer (D-N.Y.) highlighted as one of his top priorities the passage of the $109 billion bill, which would fund surface transportation projects nationwide through 2013.

The Senate passed its version of the legislation in March, but it remains stuck in the Republican-controlled House. "We passed a good, strong, bipartisan, two-year bill in the Senate," Schumer said. "The tea party faction -- a lot of them believe the government shouldn't build roads."

With the bill set to go before a conference committee of House and Senate members on May 8, Schumer said both houses are under pressure for procedural reasons to come to a resolution by June.

Schumer said the transportation bill includes funding for several initiatives that would directly benefit Long Island. "Maybe the most important" one is a plan that would allow the Long Island Rail Road to free up the money needed to build a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, he said.

An unfunded federal mandate requires the LIRR to spend $350 million to install new crash-prevention technology on its rails by 2015. The LIRR has said it can't afford to comply with the mandate and build the second track simultaneously. The Senate's transportation bill would allow the railroad to apply for a waiver from the mandate.

"If we can get this done in a fair way, we can get the second track done, which I think would be a great thing," Schumer said.

Schumer said the bill also includes $139 million to restore the monthly commuter tax benefit to $240 from the current reduced amount of $125, as well as $65 million in highway safety improvements for New York State. Schumer said he'd like to see the money go toward fixes for narrow shoulders on the Long Island Expressway and pedestrian dangers on Hempstead Turnpike -- "something that Long Island cares about."

A Newsday investigation in February found that, on average, five pedestrians were killed on Hempstead Turnpike a year between 2005 and 2010. Subsequently, state Commissioner of Transportation Joan McDonald asked DOT engineers to suggest short-term fixes and long-term solutions within 90 days.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said that while Schumer's blame of tea party Congress members for holding up action is an "oversimplification," he largely agrees with the senator on the importance of the bill. "A clear majority of the House wants this to be extended, and I'm doing all I can," he said. "It's going to pass, sooner or later."

Marc Scribner, a spokesman for the Competitive Enterprise Institute -- a think tank that advocates limited government -- said that passage of the Senate bill would be a lost opportunity to reconsider the federal government's role in transportation, including the fairness of drivers funding mass transit through gas taxes. "I think this current Senate bill basically represents the do-nothing Congress not willing to take a hard look at the status quo and say, 'Hey, this isn't working,' " Scribner said.

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