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Owens “less than enthused” with short highway bill

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WASHINGTON — With the prospects of a long-term highway bill dimming, Rep. William L. Owens said Wednesday he will support a stopgap measure to extend programs past the fall elections.

Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he is “less than enthused” about a short bill that may extend programs for 18 months or two years. He and many other lawmakers have urged a five-year measure, saying anything shorter hurts states’ ability to plan transportation projects.

Surface transportation programs are set to expire at the end of March unless Congress passes an extension. The Senate has passed a two-year bill, but House GOP leaders’ efforts for a longer deal fell apart in the last two weeks amid disagreements within the Republican majority.

The federal highway bill covers all major surface transportation programs; much of New York’s agenda for road construction and repairs relies on a share of federal funding shaped by the highway bill.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, ditched a five-year bill last week after it became clear he could not be assured enough votes to pass it. Among other problems, conservatives opposed the $216 billion cost, while a traditional conflict between roads and mass transit clouded the prospects.

The House now appears more likely to consider a short extension next week, funding programs at about their current level or cutting them slightly.

Should a short extension become reality, Mr. Owens said, he would want it to include a mandate that states set aside 15 cents of every dollar in federal highway funds for localities. County and municipal governments have indicated that if they lose that dedicated funding, their budgets for road repairs, for instance, would be threatened, Mr. Owens said.

That mandate wasn’t included in the House version of the bill, he said.

Mr. Owens added he also favors including dedicated funding for mass transit — which Republican leaders sought to remove — because Bombardier Co., with a plant in Plattsburgh, is a major supplier of subway cars.

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