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Congress OKs funding for Las Vegas interstate, freezes student loan interest rates

Updated Saturday, June 30, 2012 | 8:48 a.m.

Congress passed a triple-pronged measure Friday to freeze student loan interest rates, extend flood insurance and pump $120 billion over two years into the nation’s transportation system.

“This is a massive bill,” Sen. Harry Reid said just prior to the Senate’s 74-to-19 vote. “It’s so good for our country.”

The House passed the same measure Friday morning by a vote of 373 to 52.

All five members of the Nevada delegation voted for the measure. It was hashed out over several months of debate in and around the House and Senate and over the last several weeks in a conference committee focusing on the transportation authorization, which proved to be the most difficult legislation around which to secure a compromise.

That long-running conference committee process ultimately ended up being what drove congressional leaders to combine the unrelated topics of student loans, transportation, and flooding under the umbrella of one legislative vehicle.

Had they not, they might have run out of time, as the authorizations in question hinged on a June 30 deadline.

The student loan section of the bill freezes interest rates on loans in repayment at 3.4 percent for the next year. Absent the bill, rates were set to double to 6.8 percent on July 1.

Congress is offsetting the approximately $6 billion cost of the interest-rate freeze with a combination of pension recalculations and premium increases and by limiting students’ eligibility for federal student loans to no more than 150 percent of the time it would normally take to finish a degree.

A student enrolled in a four-year degree program would only be eligible for federal help for 6 years, and a student in a two-year degree program would be eligible for three years.

The bill also reauthorizes the national Flood Insurance Program, extends Secure Rural School funding and secures Nevada’s approximately $23 million in annual PILT payments — federal payments in lieu of taxes made to local governments.

According to the Department of the Interior, the PILT payments “help offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable Federal lands within their [local governments’] boundaries.” They are critical to Nevada, where 87 percent of the state’s land is owned by the Bureau of Land Management.

The largest part of the package, however, is a 27-month, $120 billion reauthorization of the country’s roadway, airway and railway projects.

Southern Nevada chalked up one big winmand one middle-sized loss.

There’s authorization in the bill to designate and build Interstate-11 between Las Vegas and Phoenix. But a provision to free up $45 million in funding dedicated to the now-defunct MagLev high-speed rail project failed to get a mention.

The Nevada Department of Transportation said it would have used the high-speed rail money to build an I-215/McCarran Airport Connector, a $107 million project.

The Las Vegas of Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, was cheering the inclusion of I-11 in the bill.

“Designating an Interstate between Las Vegas and Phoenix is a critical game-changer for our region,” said Kristin McMillan, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

“Interstate 11 will be the most significant infrastructure built in our region in 50 years and will open up a frontier of opportunities to expand and diversify our economy, including in areas of tourism, distribution, manufacturing and logistics,” she said.

Nevada lawmakers all seemed satisfied with the final product and how bipartisan the final vote was.

“This is really an example of what legislation is all about,” Reid said. “It’s compromise...[It] proves that when Republicans decide to work with Democrats, we can do a lot to move our economy forward.”

Sen. Dean Heller said, “This bill is an example of what can be accomplished when both parties work together.”

“I’m pleased both sides of the aisle came together today to stop the student loan rate from doubling,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley. “I’m also glad that the House approved legislation that will make Interstate 11 a reality.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the attribution on a quote from a representative of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. | (June 30, 2012)

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