US Senate passes bill extending county payments

WASHINGTON (AP) A one-year renewal of county timber payments has passed the U.S. Senate as part of the major transportation bill.

The Senate voted 74-22 Wednesday in favor of the bill, sending it to the House, where prospects for renewal of county timber payments remain uncertain.

Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden says passage of the timber payments renewal will give counties breathing room while long-term solutions are found for funding schools, law enforcement, roads and other services.

BREAKING: Senate passes transportation bill including 1-year extension of county payments, a vital lifeline for Oregon's rural communities.

Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) March 14, 2012

The amendment attached to the transportation bill last week would distribute $346 million to 700 counties in 41 states. It represents a 5 percent reduction in the 2011 payments under the Secure Rural Schools Act and the Payment In Lieu of Taxes program.

The largest shares go to Oregon, California, Washington state, Idaho and Montana.

The Senate's measure would spend $109 billion over about two years and preserve or create an estimated 2.8 million jobs. It would increase the amount of money available for states by raising current spending levels to take into account inflation over the past several years. That's still far short of the dollars that two congressional commissions have said are needed to maintain aging highways, bridges and rail systems while expanding the nation's transportation network to accommodate population growth between now and 2050.

The measure would reduce the number of federal transportation programs by roughly two-thirds in an effort to eliminate duplication. Senators preserved bicycle, pedestrian, safe routes to schools and rails-to-trails programs, targeted for elimination by Republicans, under a compromise that means they would have to compete with other programs for money.

For transit commuters, the bill would extend, back to Jan. 1, a tax break that allows the deduction of up to $240 a month tax-free from their paychecks for expenses incurred traveling to work. That had expired at the end of 2011.

On the safety front, the bill would require stricter federal oversight of the long-distance and tour bus industries through deadlines for buses to have seat belts, stronger roofs, anti-ejection windows and rollover crash avoidance systems. The bus industry carries about 750 million passengers a year, roughly the same as the domestic airline industry.

Other safety provisions include requiring that automakers provide rear seat-belt reminder systems to get children and other backseat passengers to buckle up, and testing child safety seats in frontal and side impact crashes.

The bill would let Washington reward states with extra safety money if they require graduated licenses for teenage drivers, permit police to pull over and ticket drivers for seat-belt and booster-seat violations, and mandate that convicted drunken drivers use ignition-lock devices.

Safety advocates criticized the broad exemptions from federal commercial driver's licensing, vehicle inspection and other safety requirements for agricultural trucks operating with 150 miles of their farms. Farm lobbies said the rules hinder farmers' ability to get their products to market.

States would have greater discretion over how to spend federal aid. But the bill would mean new requirements aimed at preventing waste and ensuring that national goals are met.

A credit assistance program championed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that helps leverage private investment for transportation projects of national and regional significance would grow by tenfold to $1 billion. In the past, the program has generated as much as $30 in private capital for every $1 in aid.

One thing the bill would not do is resolve how to keep the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent beyond next year.

The largest sources of money for the fund, which pays for highway and transit programs, are federal fuel taxes: 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel. Revenue from those taxes has declined since the economic downturn in 2008 and because the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks is increasing.

The bill would pay for highway programs through a combination of fuel taxes, cuts to other federal programs and tax changes, but also would drain the trust fund. Some senators have criticized provisions that are supposed to pay for transportation programs since they would raise about $10 billion over 10 years, but spend it in the first two years

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