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Committee OKs border rail improvements in highway bill

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WASHINGTON — A proposal that could help improve freight rail lines near the Canadian border cleared a key Senate committee Wednesday.

The measure, offered by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is part of a two-year highway bill approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in a rare bipartisan spirit of compromise. The bill maintains funding at current levels, plus inflation, but falls short of the five-year authorization that had become the standard in Congress.

Should the full Senate approve the bill, it will have to be reconciled with a six-year House measure that authorizes less money annually. But the Senate bill — and Mrs. Gillibrand’s provision with it — survived a process that allowed Republican leaders to block any amendments they disliked, so the bill lacks some of the partisan division that has soured so much of the Washington agenda.

Mrs. Gillibrand’s provision would allow states for the first time to use a border transportation program for freight rail projects, expanding on the Coordinated Border Infrastructure Program. Her office said it could enhance cross-border trade from Buffalo to Rouses Point; projects within five miles of the border would be eligible.

Rail corridors in the north country could use the improvements, said James W. Wright, executive director of the Development Authority of the North Country.

“Rail has been ignored for many years,” Mr. Wright said. It’s hard to find a rail line that does not need upgrades, he said.

Demand is growing for rail transportation. The New York Department of Transportation reported that freight rail, after declining for years, is enjoying a renaissance as shippers look to an alternative to trucking.

In Northern New York, farmers are moving soybeans by rail, Mr. Wright said. And rail lines are an important link for Fort Drum. The industrial park in Ogdensburg is “extremely compatible” with rail-based trade with Canada, he said.

New York officials are developing rail projects as part of a state economic development plan, with participation from the north country, Mr. Wright said.

Mrs. Gillibrand claimed only a partial victory, however, giving up an effort to include passenger rail in her proposal. That element failed to gain support from Republicans on the panel. A spokesman for the senator, James Rahm, said the change has little impact on New York because passenger trains share freight rail lines.

The bill next moves to the full Senate; a House-Senate conference committee ultimately will draft a final version. The last highway bill expired in 2009, and Congress has passed a series of short extensions.

Mrs. Gillibrand had also hoped to pass provisions encouraging states to adopt driver licenses that restrict teens’ driving privileges uniformly across the country. Most states have such graduated licenses, but standards vary widely around the country. A strong national standard would cut down on teen driving accidents, including those tied to drunk driving, she has said.

Critics, mainly on the Republican side, say drivers’ licenses should remain the responsibility of states.

She also had sought a provision encouraging more local hiring of low income workers for transportation construction projects.

Republicans cheered the bill for sticking to a ban on earmarks, or hometown projects, even though several lawmakers in both parties had said projects of national scope ought to be included. Democrats were able to maintain some flexibility for states to use federal funds on non-highway uses such as bike trails, a purpose the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. James N. Inhofe, R-Okla., has questioned.

Senators also increased funding dramatically, from $110 million to $1 billion, for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act. That program alone could generate a million new jobs, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the panel’s chairwoman.

The bill does face a funding hurdle, falling $12 billion short on the money needed to pay for it. But the Senate Finance Committee is working on that issue, and lawmakers on both sides said they are confident senators will find the funding. The Finance, Commerce and Banking committees all must sign off on the bill.

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