Capitol Hill was in a celebratory mood Wednesday as Congress moved closer to passage of the first long-term highway bill in a decade, but the moment was tempered by awareness that its patchwork funding falls short of the mark.
“The level of funding falls short,” Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) told a meeting of the House-Senate conference committee that is working on the bill. “In addition, several of the offsets offered are problematic.”
Congress has rejected the urging of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Automobile Association, labor unions and truckers that it raise the 18.4 cent federal gas tax to fund transportation.
“The funding approach laid out before us is no one’s first choice,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), who replaced House Speaker Paul D. Ryan as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “We want to see a permanent solution to the Highway Trust Fund shortfall.”
The gas tax, last raised in 1993, has been eroded by inflation and more fuel efficient vehicles. But members of Congress who have taken a no-taxes pledge have resisted increasing it.
The bill passed by the House would use money from the Federal Reserve Bank surplus account that the Fed uses to cushion against potential losses. The Senate came up with 13 different sources, including selling 101 million barrels of oil from the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve, reducing the amount of interest the Federal Reserve pays to banks, and redirecting fees paid by airline passengers into the Highway Trust Fund.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, joined others in lamenting the failure to find a dedicated funding stream to augment the trust fund. Hatch said, however, that “There will be ample time to continue working on infrastructure funding and financing issues. Only now we won’t have to do that work staring into the abyss of [trust fund] insolvency.”
The House and Senate bills each would cover six years, but neither body could come up with the funding to pay for more than three years.
“It would take $400 billion over six years just to maintain the status quo,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).
The House bill provides $325 billion; the Senate bill has $342 billion.
“I am concerned over the funding levels,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.).
Both Norton and DeFazio recommended that the bill be shortened by a year or two so that the same pot of money could be used to increase annual spending.
The argument that the federal government should increase spending beyond the current level of more than $50 billion a year is reoccurring as the country grapples with road and transit systems no longer sufficient to move Americans from place to place.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote Congress last week warning that “Funding levels in the House version [of the bill] set the nation on a course of worsening traffic and steadily deteriorating roadways.”
The conference committee appointed by House and Senate leaders is required to hold one public meeting, and Wednesday was that moment for senators and House members to expand on their thoughts. In the trenches, however, the work at finding compromise between bills passed by the two houses has been done by staff members, who worked through the weekend and will continue running on coffee and pizza as the struggle to get it done by the latest deadline, Dec. 5.
The march toward passage of a multi-year transportation bill has had a sad-sack quality to it, with multiple deadlines set and later missed, quick-fix extensions funded through questionable means and projects delayed while Congress stumbled.
It is state and local governments that say they suffer, for the federal government builds little, if anything, itself. The policy it sets and the money it allocates are for projects carried out by state highway and transit authorities. While generally subservient to the impotency of Congress, people in state capitols complain bitterly that uncertainty on Capitol Hill has hindered their desire to plan projects that take several years to complete.
“This bill will at least stop the roller coaster of short-term extensions,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Faced with questions over whether the federal dollars will be there to finish the job, almost two dozen states have raised their state gas tax to bolster their own ability to pay for road and transit projects.
This fits nicely into the vision of the devolutionists, a small but passionate group within Congress who believe that states should be able to set transportation policy and plan spending unfettered by regulation by a central government.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said Wednesday that the conference committee planned to have a bill finalized by Nov. 30 so it can get final approval from both houses before the deadline.
Shuster said as soon as the bill clears the president’s desk, Congress should tackle the financing issue so it no longer has to look for money “behind the couch and under the cushions.”