Congress is on the cusp of reauthorizing the Farm Bill for another four years. The House and Senate bills, at least in terms of the conservation programs, are remarkably similar, so a bill undoubtedly will pass in the coming months. That's good news, because both the House-passed and Senate versions include a $60 million annual authorization for a new regional watershed enhancement program.

Doug McKalip, NRCS director of legislative and public affairs, says his agency envisions the program as a way for water districts or sewer agencies to round up large numbers of farmers who agree to put waste management systems on their spreads. Up until now, NRCS grants have gone to individual farmers—the new watershed program will encourage regional cooperation, which will lighten the toxins load on rivers, groundwater, and sewers.

Moving Toward Transportation Dollars

Unlike the Corps authorization bill and the Farm Bill, where authorizations don't always lead to federal funding of a project, the Transportation Department's fiscal 2008 appropriations bill will undoubtedly lead to new funding for bridge repair in the wake of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis last summer. That DOT 2008 appropriations bill (which as of press time had not been passed) is almost certain to include a provision allowing the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to yank an extra $1 billion out of the Highway Trust Fund in 2008 and use it for bridge repair. Both the House and Senate have agreed on that provision.

The FHWA will also make bridge repair funds available via private activity bonds. In 2005 SAFETEA-LU gave the DOT authority to allow cities and counties to issue up to $15 billion in private activity bonds and turn over bond proceeds to private contractors for highway and bridge projects. Prior to that bill, the move had been illegal. In May 2007 the FHWA gave the Missouri DOT authority to sell $700 million in bonds for the Missouri Safe and Sound Bridge Improvement Project.

Tyler Duvall, assistant secretary for transportation policy in the office of the secretary at the DOT, says the FHWA has allocated about $3 billion of the $15 billion to date and has pending applications for another $2.5 billion. Duvall says the FHWA plans to commit another $6 billion to $7 billion over the next 18 months.

“Using private activity bonds is a cheaper way for cities and towns to finance projects than using private equity,” he says.

The FHWA is helping states build highways, too—particularly those built via public-private partnerships (PPPs). Some PPP projects, including a couple in Texas, have included controversial tolling components. This year, Congress may force the FHWA to considerably slow its approval of PPPs.

The 2008 Transportation Appropriations bill also had an amendment prohibiting only Texas from moving forward with toll roads for one year, the duration of the appropriations bill. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), sponsor of the amendment in the Senate, is seeking a nationwide ban on toll roads in the 2008 Transportation appropriations bill, which will be considered this year. She probably will enjoy significant Democratic support. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has relayed his committee's concern for the FHWA's push of PPPs to speed highway construction, given shortfalls in the highway trust fund owing to lower gas tax revenues.

— Steve Barlas has served as a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer for trade and professional magazines since 1981. In that time, he has covered nearly every federal regulatory agency, cabinet department, and congressional committee, with a special emphasis on the EPA.

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