WASHINGTON — Though a highway bill passed by Congress on Friday won’t mean more federal dollars for Oklahoma in the next two years, the state’s transportation secretary said changes included in the legislation would yield financial benefits.
“I can’t tell you how excited we are about the opportunities Congress is going to provide the states,” Gary Ridley said in an interview. “I think all states will benefit from what they’re doing.”
House and Senate negotiators, including Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. James Lankford, concluded work on the bill this week. House Republicans agreed to drop some unrelated provisions such as a requirement that the Keystone XL pipeline be approved, while Democrats agreed to House provisions that will streamline environmental reviews for road and bridge projects.
The bill will eliminate two-thirds of the programs that were part of the last highway bill, approved in 2005, and give states more flexibility in using money that had been required for alternative transportation modes, such as bike paths. Supporters said the environmental review changes could cut the average time of a project in half.
“I think you could say we’ll see the environmental changes speed up a lot of our projects,” Ridley said.
In the case of a bridge that needs to be replaced, he said, the changes in the bill could avoid lengthy review if the new bridge will be on the same “footprint.”
Those kinds of changes, Ridley said, will be “as good as money.”
The highway bill, which will be in effect through most of 2014, will keep Oklahoma at its current funding level of about $612 million a year.
Ridley said that money has about the same buying power as it did just before the recession in 2007. Some costs dropped in the ensuing years but have been steadily rising, he said.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, said the bill includes provisions to allow farmers and ranchers to take their products across state lines without meeting certain commercial vehicle regulations, as long as they are no farther than 150 air miles from their farms.
Of the entire bill, Lankford said, “We were able to create a long-term solution, which will shorten construction permitting schedules, reduce costs, and increase state flexibility. It was essential to give primary transportation decision authority to Oklahoma leadership, rather than keeping the control in Washington, D.C.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the top Senate negotiator said the bill “will save and create about three million jobs, provide a boost to the economy by rebuilding our roads and bridges, and make our nation more competitive.”
Inhofe’s role in getting the bill over the finish line was praised by Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Friday.
Inhofe, a big believer in highway funding, spent much of his time trying to persuade conservative House members to agree to a bill “with a lot of zeros in it.” The bill is expected to cost more than $100 billion through the 2014 fiscal year.
“Our bill streamlines environmental review process for the long term, gives more authority and flexibility to the states to decide their own funding priorities, and eliminates or consolidates programs that are duplicative or do not further our national transportation goals — all things conservatives are proud to support,” Inhofe said.
Not all conservatives agreed.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., objected to the bill, which also included an extension of current student loan rates, for violating budget ceilings previously approved.
“The message this sends is that the Senate doesn’t have the discipline, the courage, or the will to do what we told the American people we would do to try to get our fiscal house in order,” Corker said.