TRANSPORTATION: Congress eyes bill vital to Inland area

10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, September 1, 2011

BY BEN GOAD and DUG BEGLEY
STAFF WRITERS
bgoad@pe.com | dbegley@PE.com

California would lose more than $4.6 billion and as many as 164,000 jobs if Congress fails this month to extend federal transportation legislation that funds road, bridge and rail projects around the country, Sen. Barbara Boxer said Thursday.

The current surface transportation authorization bill expires at the end of this month. And following a congressional standoff this summer that led to a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, some in Washington worry that the much larger transportation bill extension could get stuck in the same gridlock.

Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Committee that oversees transportation, said she plans next week to take up consideration of legislation to extend the current bill through the end of January. Boxer’s remarks come a day after President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass a “clean” extension, keeping transportation at current levels without any modifications.

Inland officials said an extension will keep projects moving, but the larger need is a long-term plan for how the region’s roads and transit are designed to ease congestion.

In Riverside County, officials have prioritized widening Highway 91, while in San Bernardino County elected officials are focused on an overhaul of the Devore interchange where Interstate 215 and Interstate 15 converge. Both projects are reliant on future federal funding.

“Transportation projects cost money and to think otherwise is foolish,” said Cathedral City Councilman Greg Pettis, chairman of the Riverside County Transportation Commission. “While I understand the political realities of some delays, we need — as do other agencies — a commitment to a long-term plan and strategy so that we can move forward on critical new projects, like the 91 freeway.”

Caltrans officials are also encouraging federal officials to reach a solution. Transportation projects totaling $23 billion would “grind to a halt” if federal funding authorization expires, according to a letter to state congressional leaders from Caltrans Acting Director Malcolm Dougherty.

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