A tunnel boring machine is assembled for the Second Avenue...

A tunnel boring machine is assembled for the Second Avenue Subway, a major MTA project (May 14, 2010). Credit: AP

The clock is ticking, and the current national transportation bill, with funding for both highways and mass transit, is less than a month from expiring. Passage of a new bill is crucial for New York and the nation. But it won't be easy.

Right now, the solution is in the hands of a conference committee in Congress that must reconcile two sharply differing bills, before the current one expires June 30. Here's how we got to this point:

The Senate passed a bipartisan bill extending current funding through September 2013. We'd prefer a five-year bill, like those in the past, to give states certainty about federal aid and help them plan. But the last one like that expired in 2009. Passing a new long-term bill is tough. The federal gas tax, which feeds the Highway Trust Fund to pay for both roads and mass transit, is falling short, and raising the tax is politically impossible now.

The House bill under consideration earlier in the year would have resolved the tax shortfall by removing mass transit from the trust fund. That would have been a disaster for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which gets $1 billion a year from the fund and $400 million from the general fund. But House Republicans couldn't muster the votes to pass it, partly because some of their members serve districts with mass transit.

What the House did instead is pass a three-month extension, to Sept. 30. But it tacked on some poison pills, like rubber-stamping TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, which President Barack Obama had rejected. Though this page supports the pipeline, this bill is not the place for it. Obama would veto a bill with that provision. The House bill has other nongermane, deal-breaking provisions, such as easing regulation of coal ash, a known carcinogen.

We need the bill not only to fix and improve our roads and mass transit, but also for the jobs. Fixing roads, buying buses and subway and commuter rail cars, and upgrading tracks and signals all cost money. That money flows to the folks who do the work, who buy goods and services that keep cash registers ka-chinging. Failing to pass a sensible bill would be a major job-killer.

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