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Transportation Bill Could Be A Hallmark Of Barbara Boxer's Senate Career

File / AP

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., right, participate in a joint hearing with the Senate subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014.

File / AP

Two issues have been consistent in the Capitol Hill career of retiring California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer: climate change and transportation. While Boxer’s climate agenda has mostly been blocked, she’s been able to bridge the partisan divide on transportation policy. And as her time in the Senate winds down, she's facing one more uphill battle.

Transportation projects usually take years from conception to completion. To the chagrin of local planners, Congress has passed more than thirty short-term highway bills in the past six years.

That’s why Boxer was pleased with the development of a six-year transportation bill. She says the compromise wasn’t easy and she thought the deal might fall apart.

"It was a very hard negotiation, but we really came out with something good, I'm very glad about it and proud of it," says Boxer.

Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, who is known for denying climate change, reached the deal with Boxer. Inhofe says they may disagree on climate change, but they’re on the same page in dealing with highways and bridges.

“This is the one area where Barbara and I love each other," says Inhofe.

Boxer got her bike paths and sidewalks. Inhofe got his demand for a streamlined approval process for new projects. He says environmental reviews impede or derail transportation projects. As we walked in the basement of the Capitol, Boxer explained why she was able to accept Inhofe’s demand.

"We didn’t think it did any violence to the underlying protections that we need to have, just speeding things up and making everyone agree," says Boxer. "They have to work faster is something I’ve always believed but, of course, you know it was hard.”

Boxer’s proven ability to work with conservatives on highway policy has surprised some people in Washington. Greg Cohen is President of the American Highway Users Alliance. He says he was worried when Boxer became Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee in 2007.

"I thought you know she’s a greeny," says Cohen. "She’s not going to care about roads. It’s all going to be about bicycle paths and you know creditors or whatever. Turns out that she cares about all those things absolutely but she also cares about the people driving in the cars, people who are waiting for the package to be delivered and she’s a driver herself.”

Cohen says the latest compromise could be a hallmark of Boxer’s career in Congress.

"I think it’s testament to her… you know this is the end of her career as a Senator," says Cohen. "I think this could be a capstone for her to get the six-year bill done. It’s really a partnership, even though she’s not the chairman anymore. It’s still a capstone moment for her.”

Peter Ruane is president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. He says he’s been impressed watching Boxer thread the needle in a hyper-partisan Congress.

"Her role is, you know, very, very important if not critical to getting the legislation passed," says Ruane. "She’s able to bring in folks from both parties and say, hey look, we have to compromise let’s get this done, it's important for the country, and she’s been able to do that and consistently."

Boxer’s committee developed the compromise, but the Finance Committee now has to figure out how to pay for it. Boxer supports offering a temporary tax holiday to corporations with holdings overseas, but she’s open to other ideas.

“I think anything less than a six-year bill now just doesn’t deal with it," says Boxer.

Whatever happens, Boxer says there’s no question it is a legacy issue for her.

"Well it’s definitely something that would give me great joy to leave here knowing that we’re not into this never-ending patchwork quilt of extensions, short-term extensions," says Boxer. "I would not feel good leaving that situation behind."

The current short-term extension of the highway program runs out at the end of July.

Matt Laslo

Former Contributing Washington DC Reporter

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court since 2006. He has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, including Capital Public Radio.  Read Full Bio 

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