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In The Highway Bill, Some Find Road To Riches, Others Hit A Pothole

The 1,300-page transportation bill is designed to free up highway bottlenecks, increase the number of buses and ferries, enhance high-tech information sharing to reduce congestion and fill a lot of potholes.
Carlos Osorio

When Congress completes a five-year transportation bill this week, it will mark the first time in a decade that Americans will be moving forward with a long-lasting plan.

Big infrastructure projects take years to complete, so it's vital to have enduring funding, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a press briefing Wednesday. Since 2005, lawmakers have not passed a highway spending bill lasting more than two years.

"If passed, this legislation would be a real step forward for our transportation infrastructure after years of short-term patches," Earnest said. President Obama is expected to sign the bill.

Assuming you occasionally leave your house, your life likely will be affected by this sweeping, $305 billion package, known as the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act.

The 1,300-page measure, worked out by congressional negotiators, is designed to: free up highway bottlenecks, increase the number of buses and ferries, enhance high-tech information sharing to reduce congestion, and fill a lot of potholes.

But while the impact of the package will be broad, it also will have some specific features reflecting the wins and losses of lobbyists, some of whom have nothing to do with asphalt.

Here are a few of the winners, based on what's tucked inside the massive bill:

  • The Export-Import Bank. This federal government agency helps finance exports. Critics say it serves as a slush fund for big corporations. Supporters say it helps create jobs. Its charter expired June 30, but now it will spring back to life under a five-year reauthorization.
  • Oil companies and gas station owners. The gasoline tax has traditionally been the key source for highway funding. But lawmakers only reauthorized the 18.4 cents-per-gallon tax without raising it.
  • Freight companies. Congress typically puts more emphasis on moving people (aka voters) than moving goods. But this bill directs $10.8 billion at infrastructure projects to improve "freight corridors" that can get factory goods, retail items and agricultural products flowing more smoothly.
  • Young veterans. The bill lowers the minimum age of interstate truck drivers to 18 years from 21 — but only for veterans and current military members and reservists.
  • And here are some of the losers:

  • Banks. This may leave you scratching your head, but big banks are the big losers. To help pay for transportation, the legislation reduces the dividend payments made by the Federal Reserve to banks with assets exceeding $10 billion. The Wall Street Journal estimates the nation's four biggest banks — Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo — will take a hit of nearly $500 million just next year.
  • Automakers. The bill increases the penalty cap that the government can impose on automakers for malfeasance, to $105 million from $35 million.
  • Car rental companies. The bill requires rental car companies and dealerships to fix vehicles subject to a safety recall before renting, loaning or selling the cars to the public.
  • Both the House and Senate already have approved transportation packages, but this final version is the blended result of negotiations involving lawmakers from both parties. Congressional leaders say final passage will come in time to beat Friday's expiration deadline for the existing transportation bill.

    House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters that the package will have "very good majority support."

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    Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.
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