by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
A bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation that would spend $275 billion over the next six years on the nation’s roads, as lawmakers scramble to prevent an interruption in federal infrastructure spending next month.
The measure, known as the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act, calls for appropriating nearly $43 billion per year to the federal government’s highway program. The spending would be contingent upon lawmakers coming up with a way to pay for it.
The federal government’s transportation spending is typically funded by a combination the gas tax and transfers from other areas of the budget. Lawmakers face a July 31 deadline for the expiration of the current infrastructure measure but are deadlocked on how to pay for an extension.
The sponsors of the Senate bill said it is time for Congress to find a long-term solution to the problem.
“Our nation’s roads and highways have suffered under too many short-term extensions, which have led to higher costs, more waste, and less capability to prioritize major modernization projects to address growing demands on our interstates,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
“The DRIVE Act will provide states and local communities with the certainty they deserve to plan and construct infrastructure projects efficiently,” he added.
Democrats who are co-sponsoring the multiyear transportation funding bill offered similar praise but also sought to put pressure on Republican appropriators to come up with a way to pay for the measure.
“One of the most important things we do as members of Congress is to help provide Americans with a transportation system that is worthy of this country,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement.
“Our work, however, is not finished,” Carper continued. “In order to make the DRIVE Act a reality, we must provide full funding so that city, state and local governments have the certainty they need to make the investments we’ve outlined in this bill.”
Lawmakers have grappled for the better part of a decade with a gap in transportation funding that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year.
The federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents per gallon, has been the traditional source of transportation funding since its inception in the 1930s. But the tax has not been increased since 1993, and improvements in auto fuel efficiency have sapped its purchasing power.
The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in approximately $34 billion annually.
As a result of the shortfall, Congress has not passed a transportation bill that last longer than two years since 2005.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion in addition to the gas tax revenue to close the gap long enough to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill, such as the measure offered in the Senate.
Transportation supporters have pushed for a gas tax increase to pay for a long-term transportation bill, but Republican lawmakers have ruled out such a hike.
Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the transportation funding gap in recent years, resulting in temporary fixes, such as a two-month patch that was approved by lawmakers last month.
Transportation advocates have complained that temporary extensions prevent state and local governments from completing badly needed long-term infrastructure projects.
The sponsors of the long-term bill that was introduced on Tuesday have said they are deferring to appropriators in the Senate on how the multiyear transportation bill should be financed.
Democrats on the Public Works Committee said the introduction of a multiyear policy proposal should put pressure on appropriators in the Senate to come up with a road funding fix.
“The clock is ticking, and action in the EPW Committee is a major first step — the other committees also need to act,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is the top ranking Democrat on the Public Works panel.
The DRIVE Act calls for spending $42.9 billion per year on the Federal-Aid Highway Program.
The measure also includes $675 million per year for the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which allows states to apply for federally backed, low-interest loans to help pay for large construction programs.
The measure also includes approximately $240 million per year for the National Park Service and about $1.3 billion per year for federal lands and tribal transportation programs.
Inhofe, Boxer, Carper and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) are sponsoring the bill.