The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act filed Tuesday would allow the use of toll credits for Appalachian highway projects such as Route 219.
The toll credits would provide funding necessary to finish the highway — a project local, state and federal officials have worked to complete for decades.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, said it was a good day in Washington, D.C., because the toll credit language that he introduced was included in the act.
"It is in there," he said. "It is not a done deal. We crossed a huge hurdle. Someone may try to offer amendments in committee, the House floor. We've taken the first strong stride in getting this to become law."
Shuster said if the language becomes law transportation officials have told him ground could quickly be broken for the road.
The 2005 highway bill, which was the last transportation bill passed, prohibited the use of toll credits as matching funds for routes in the Appalachian Development Highway System. Shuster's version would remove the prohibition, allowing Pennsylvania to move forward and complete the next stage of Route 219 between Somerset and Meyersdale. The toll credits could be used as the $35 million state match for the project.
The bill will now go to committees for debate. Shuster expects the bill will go to the House floor the week of Feb. 13. Shuster said the fact that the bill is a comprehensive plan makes it stronger. There is language in the bill to help decrease dependency on foreign oil, Shuster said.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., said in a press release that the bill will provide jobs by rebuilding roads and bridges and developing new sources of low cost energy. He also noted that there are no earmarks in the legislation. Mica's committee introduced the bill.
"The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act is the largest transportation reform bill since the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956," Mica said. "This is a five-year bill that reforms our federal transportation programs, cuts the red tape and bureaucracy that delays projects across the country, gives states more flexibility to determine their most critical infrastructure needs, provides states with the long-term stability to undertake major improvements and encourages private sector participation in helping to finance transportation projects."
Shuster said that for the bill to pass, Democrats will need to support it. He said Somerset County residents should contact Democratic senators and representatives and urge them to support the legislation.
"I am cautiously optimistic," Shuster said about the bill's passage. "Democrats control the Senate so we need (U.S. Sen.) Bobby Casey fighting for it. In the House we need the Democratic votes."
U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, wrote letters to Mica in support of toll credits last year and Tuesday.
"When I got the report it was in there, I breathed a sign of relief," he said. "Until it is passed we need to keep track of it to make sure it stays in there."
Critz has not had a chance to review the bill.
"I am anxious to see the bill and what it is going to mean for highway construction for the next several years," he said.
Critz has been working on the project since his days as district director for U.S. Rep. John Murtha. He made telephone calls to state Sens. Rich Kasunic and John Wozniak to help secure $35 million in state funding several years ago.
"It's another critical step," he said. "Now we need to make sure it keeps moving forward."
Critz is also working to tie Route 219 into Canada. He plans to continue working to keep the language in the bill.
"I'll talk to anyone and everyone. My hope of course is this bill is one we can all support as well," he said. "It is not only important to Somerset County but important to the country as a whole."
U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, said he is happy to see the toll credit legislation move forward. He was reviewing the rest of the bill Tuesday.
"It has detractors," he said. "If it does pass the House, it is an uphill fight in the Senate. It is likely it is going to run into a roadblock."
Altmire expects some heavily debated amendments to the bill.
"I will keep pushing for this," he said.
After his interview with the Daily American Tuesday afternoon, Altmire released a statement opposing increased truck weight standards, which is a provision in the act. The bill seeks to increase the truck weight limit from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds. He said in a release that funds are needed to repair transportation systems before allowing heavier trucks in Pennsylvania.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey said the senator was glad to see the toll credit language, which Toomey has supported, in the transportation bill.
"He has been working with his Senate colleagues to ensure that a similar change is included in the Senate's version as well," Rebecca Neal said in an email.
Requests for comment from Casey were not returned Tuesday.