Transportation secretary optimistic about bill

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 4, 2011 3:42pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Friday he is optimistic that the U.S. Congress will pass a sweeping bill to authorize funding for road and transit by August.

LaHood told reporters his optimism stemmed from meetings with Congressional leaders influential in crafting the legislation. The last authorization expired two years ago and consideration of a new bill was put aside during the campaigns for the 2010 mid-term elections.

Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee, is holding meetings across the country on what should be included in the authorization and has said he will likely unveil priorities included in the bill this spring.

LaHood said his recent meetings with Mica and with Senate Democrats Barbara Boxer and Jay Rockefeller prompted his confidence that Congress wants to complete a bill as soon as possible.

"I am optimistic it is possible to have a bill on the President's desk by the August recess," LaHood said on a conference call about President Barack Obama's infrastructure priorities.

He did not discuss what Obama would like to see in the bill and did not give any indication about what members of Congress are considering.

Recently, Obama has renewed his push for building up the country's infrastructure, in the hopes of spurring job creation and helping the country's nascent economic recovery.

The President will address infrastructure issues in a speech on the economy to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce next week, White House officials said.

States are eager to see what Obama will include for capital works in the budget he is set to propose later this month, with many governors pressing for help to repair roads and employ construction workers displaced by the end of the housing boom.

Both parties historically had embraced the transportation authorization because it enabled lawmakers to bring money home to their districts, but in recent years potential costs of the authorization have become a partisan point of dispute.

The expired authorization had a total price tag that was less than $300 billion for road and bridge upgrades and transit services. A proposal that did not get off the ground in the previous Congress exceeded $450 billion and the next bill will likely have a cost between the two amounts.

Since the previous authorization expired, Congress has had to pass patch legislation to keep money flowing to states for maintaining their highways. Also, in the $814 billion economic stimulus plan, Congress sent money to states for short-term projects, such as road repaving.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by James Dalgleish)