by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unveiled a six-year $265 billion transportation bill late Monday.
The measure reauthorizes the expiring 2012 transportation bill and includes approximately $44 billion per year in road and transit funding.
It comes after pressure from President Obama and transportation advocates who warned that the expiring bill would leave key projects unfunded or behind schedule.
The panel’s leaders said the money would be enough to maintain current transportation funding levels adjusted for inflation through the end of fiscal 2020.
“The legislation builds on the success of the comprehensive reforms and performance-based approach to transportation investment in Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21),” the panel said in a statement announcing the legislation.
“It provides long-term funding, giving state and local governments the certainty and stability they need to improve and develop our nation’s transportation infrastructure,” they added. “These investments will create new jobs, provide a boost to our nation’s economy, and keep us competitive in the global marketplace.”
The committee is scheduled to mark up their version of the transportation bill on Thursday.
The current transportation bill is scheduled to expire in September and the trust fund that is used by the Department of Transportation to pay for infrastructure projects is forecast to run out of money as early as August without congressional action.
The Senate’s transportation bill lasts two years longer than President Obama’s four-year $302 billion proposal, but it includes less annual funding for road and transit projects.
Obama called on lawmakers to spend approximately $75 billion per year on infrastructure over four years.
Transportation advocates heralded the Senate for attempting to craft a long-term transportation bill, despite the gap between Obama’s proposed funding levels and the upper chamber’s.
“We commend the EPW Committee and its leadership for its bipartisan approach to the need for a long-term, multi-year investment in transportation infrastructure,” American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Executive Director Bud Wright said.
“The nature of the projects and programs that state departments of transportation oversee require a long-term view in order to ensure the best investment of federal, state and local tax dollars,” he added.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that lawmakers will have to find at least $69 billion for highways and $22 billion for public transit projects to pay for the proposed six-year transportation plan.
The Senate bill does not specify how the transportation bill will be funded.
The traditional funding source for congressional transportation bills has been revenue that is collected from the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax.
The gas tax has not been increased since 1993 however, and the fuel levy was not adjusted for inflation when it was last hiked. As a result, the gas tax only brings in $34 billion per year.
Obama has suggested that lawmakers use approximately $150 billion from a corporate tax reform package, but it is unlikely that lawmakers will back using that measure to pay for transportation funding.
Some Democrats have pushed to increase the gas tax to approximately 33 cents per gallon, arguing that the fuel levy would be near that amount now if it had been indexed to inflation.
Republicans and the Obama administration, though, have both refused to raise taxes at the pump in an election year.
The task of finding the revenue to pay for the transportation bill will be left to the Senate Finance Committee, which is led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Wyden said during a hearing last week that he was keeping all funding options on the table.
“Congress needs to find a sustainable source of funds that will keep this crunch from happening again,” Wyden said. “It would be a tragic mistake to let highway funding become another stop-and-go extender like Medicare physician payments and many important tax incentives.”
Wyden said he supported the Environment and Public Works Committee’s attempt to craft a long-term transportation bill.
“Relying on short-term policies, emergency patches, and temporary extensions makes forward-looking strategies impossible, and when it comes to infrastructure, planning ahead is absolutely essential,” he said.
“Some proposals offered over the last few months, like using new tolls on existing roads or charging motorists based on the number of miles they drive, raise questions about privacy and feasibility that would need to be answered,” Wyden continued.
But he vowed that his panel would “examine them thoroughly.”