The recent activity in the House of Representatives on a $260 billion, five-year transportation authorization bill, raises hope that Congress would finally enact a long-delayed successor to the SAFETEA-LU surface transportation law. This would be a relief to all those who seek a long-term source of funding to help repair and replace the nation’s deteriorating roads, rails, and bridges. But don’t stick that shovel in the ground just yet. With a divided Congress and an election looming, it is easy to see this train getting de-railed, at least until 2013.

SAFETEA-LU should have been re-authorized by September 30, 2009. The reason for the almost three-year delay is the lack of revenue flowing into the Highway Trust Fund (“HTF”), which is the biggest source of funds to pay for surface transportation projects. H.R. 7, the “American Energy and Infrastructure Act” (“Act”), includes a number of “pay fors” to help make up for this. However, they come with their own concerns. For example, the Act would find new revenue by opening up sections of the outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling, something that many Members of Congress from coastal states oppose. In addition, the Act would open up sections of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (“ANWR”) to oil drilling, also a hot button issue. And it would change the rules regarding pension contributions for federal employees, which has generated its own level of opposition.

It is for this, as well as other reasons, that House Democrats are reported to be in almost unanimous opposition to the Act, with a number of Republicans opposing it as well. It is perhaps for these reasons that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH-8) has announced (1) that the vote on the Act will be delayed until the House returns from its week-long Presidents’ Day recess; and (2) the major components of the Act will each be voted on separately, rather than as a comprehensive measure. And if the Act even passes the House, it faces opposition in the Senate, which is working on its own two-year re-authorization bill (S.1813, the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” or “MAP 21”), which has a lower price tag ($109 billion). And even if it passes the Senate intact, the Act faces a veto threat from the White House.

All of this indicates a lot of political posturing, and significant uncertainty, in advance of the fall campaign season. With funding remaining a concern, however, leveraging public funds with private funds will likely need to be a component of any transportation proposal to reach the President’s desk. Such measures as the “greater use of existing federal financing programs, the creation and capitalization of state “infrastructure banks” to provide financing for projects, and policies that will attract private sector investment i.e. through public-private partnerships,” are common to the Act and enjoy bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Just don’t expect them to become law anytime soon.