House, Senate approve summer patch to highway funding plan

House, Senate approve summer patch to highway funding plan

The House on Tuesday voted to extend the current federal funding plan for surface transportation programs through July, when the Highway Trust Fund is projected to go broke. The Transportation policy committees in both the House and Senate, with support from the White House and trucking industry, have committed to getting a long-term plan ready for consideration by then—but paying for a comprehensive, half-trillion dollar plan remains the sticking point.

If it ain’t broke—yet—why fix it? That’s the attitude of the House of Representatives, who on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to defer finding additional money for federal transportation programs until July, when the Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of fuel tax dollars. The Senate rubber-stamped the bill on it's way out of town Friday for the Memorial Day legislative break.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), the Transportation committee chair, noted in introducing the legislation (H.R. 2353) that it is a “clean” extension, meaning transportation programs will be fully funded at their current levels. However, he added that members will need to pass another extension with additional funds before the August recess.

“A short-term extension was not our preferred path forward,” Shuster said on the House floor. “Our hope was to extend the surface program through the end of the calendar year. That would have ensured reliable funding for the states through the construction season. A longer extension would also have allowed us to focus on finding a long-term funding solution within the context of tax reform without the distraction of having to deal with the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund later this summer.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) ranking member of the Transportation committee, echoed and amplified Shuster’s concern for the shutdown of transportation projects. Democrats would “reluctantly” support the July extension to avert a “tragedy at the height of the construction season,” he said.

“Here we are again, yet another short-term patch. It’s a heck of a way to run a great nation. Our system is falling apart,” DeFazio said, decrying the drop in U.S. investment in infrastructure and detailing the billions needed for repairs. “It is embarrassing. … We cannot continue to kick this can the down road—the road is at a dead end.”

DeFazio suggested that 60 days should provide enough time to negotiate a long-term bill, and he touted the Obama administration’s Grow America Act, a half-trillion dollar, six-year plan.

“We need to enhance spending. We can no longer pretend ‘we’re going to do more with less’—we’re past that point,” he said, bringing out a chart to illustrate the loss of purchasing power since the federal tax on gasoline and diesel was last raised in 1993. “This is the last wake-up call.”

The July patch passed 387-35, in a bipartisan vote.

Senate, White House, trucking call for more

But Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, already have announced that the transportation policy committee is planning for a mark-up in June of a bipartisan, six-year reauthorization bill.

"We are quickly approaching a critical deadline for federal investment in our nation’s roads and bridges.  Without Congressional action by May 31, vital projects across the nation will come to a grinding halt,” said a joint statement. “This is unacceptable, and we owe it to our nation’s economy to send a strong signal that Congress is going to maintain the backbone of America’s commerce and national security. While Congress continues to debate the funding mechanisms, we believe it is in the best interest that this committee moves forward with consideration of a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill. We can no longer wait on Congress.”

The White House, which now must sign-off on the legislation, said the administration “does not oppose” the extension, “recognizing that a short-term extension of these authorities will be necessary in order for the Congress to complete work on a long-term bill that increases investment to meet the Nation's infrastructure needs.”

“Unfortunately, H.R. 2353 represents yet one more short-term extension coming on top of the several short-term extensions that preceded it,” the policy statement said. “It is time for the Congress to end the era of short-term patches and chronic underinvestment. The administration will not support continued failure in making the investments the Nation needs. The administration expects that the Congress will use this two month extension to make meaningful and demonstrable progress towards a significant bill in 2015.”

Likewise, trucking continues to call for a long-term, fully funded highway and freight program.

In a recent opinion piece, American Trucking Assns. President and CEO Bill Graves emphasized the need for additional funding and reiterated ATA’s support for an increase in the diesel tax, saying the industry and economy “are seeing the impacts of that neglect” in highway investment.

“Congress has kicked the can down the road—a congested road marked with potholes, mind you—so often the can is dented beyond recognition. This must end,” Graves wrote. “Now, we can’t reasonably expect the House and Senate to craft a full, well-funded, multi-year highway bill by the end of the month, but we cannot allow them to continue to delay for very long. Congress should act now to keep the highway program and then turn their attention to passing a long-term highway bill as soon as possible.”

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