The funding maneuvers by the Senate allow continued spending slightly above current levels without addressing the central issue that has delayed new long-term transportation funding since the last legislation expired more than two years ago.
The Highway Trust Fund’s primary source of revenue, the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax, has not kept pace with transportation needs. Without an infusion of new cash, it has been projected to run out of money as early as next year.
Neither Congress nor the White House has shown an appetite for increasing the tax or embracing the foremost alternative, a tolling system that would charge drivers for miles traveled.
The differences over tolls on more highways were made apparent Wednesday by competing amendments, one that would have banned new tolls on existing interstates and another that would have given states the ability to expand the use of tolls. To speed passage of the bill, their sponsors agreed that neither should come to a vote.
“If we want to pass another transportation bill when this one expires in two years, we must address the structural flaws in the highway trust fund,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who sponsored the toll-road amendment. “I hope our respective amendments represent the beginning of an honest and important conversation about our nation’s long-term transportation needs and how we pay for them.”
The House is away this week, but on Wednesday of last week, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) failed in a closed-door meeting to persuade House Republicans to rally around a five-year House bill.
The following day, Boehner didn’t rule out simply waiting to act on the two-year Senate bill.
“As I told the members yesterday, the current plan is to see what the Senate can produce and to bring their bill up,” Boehner said. “And, in the meantime, we are going to continue to have conversations with members about a longer-term approach, which, frankly, most of our members want. But at this point in time, the plan is to bring up the Senate bill or something like it.”
The alternative to final congressional approval would be a short-term extension that keeps funding at current levels. That would be a setback for state governments, eager to have new funding authorization that allows them to set their longer-term project plans.