In a hearing that mixed partisan barbs with lamentation that transportation once was a bipartisan lovefest, a key House committee moved Thursday to patch funding for roads, bridges and transit systems until May 31, 2015.
If approved by the full House, the plan to keep threatened federal transportation funding flowing faces strong opposition from Senate Democrats who want Congress to find a more lasting solution after lawmakers return from the November election.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce concurred with that view this week, saying that a long-term funding fix for the beleaguered Highway Trust Fund should be found by December. “The longer the patch, the easier it will be for Congress to kick the can down the road and avoid the tough question,” Chamber Vice President R. Bruce Josten wrote to the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday.
A Senate panel passed a funding patch bill later Thursday, but not without a wrangle over how long funding should be extended. The Finance Committee voted to provide $10.8 billion but stipulated no end date for the spending.
The tough question is how to pay to maintain and renew the nation’s transportation systems, a problem that Congress has known about and avoided for years. The vast majority of the trust fund’s money comes from an 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax that has not been raised since 1993. Inflation and fuel-efficient vehicles have eroded revenue from the tax to the point that it will be unable to cover the bills as soon as next month.
That puts more than 117,000 transportation projects that employ 700,000 workers at risk.
Without a quick infusion of cash from elsewhere, the options laid out by the Congressional Budget Office were to reduce spending on roads by 30 percent and on transit by 65 percent; raise the gas tax by 10 to 15 cents per gallon; or transfer $18 billion from the general tax fund. Keeping funding at current levels for the next six years is estimated to cost about $100 billion more than the trust fund will bring in.
“Now is the time to act and not delay,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said at Thursday’s House hearing. “We don’t have Democratic roads and Republican roads. Let’s come back here and fix our roads and bridges. We can do it in a bipartisan fashion.”
The bill approved by the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday would provide a temporary cash infusion. The proposal, crafted by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the committee’s chairman, would give almost $11 billion more to the trust fund through the end of May. Most of it — $9.9 billion — would come from the general fund; $1 billion would be transferred from another fund.
The transfer would be offset by savings from a complicated process called pension smoothing over the next 10 years and by extending customs user fees.
The Senate plan taps into those two sources and several others to collect $10.8 billion over 10 years.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has insisted that her six-year transportation bill must be taken up in the post-election, lame-duck session, before a new Congress with an inevitable learning curve arrives in January. House Republicans, hopeful that their party will take control of the Senate next year, want to postpone action until spring.
“I am totally committed to getting a long-term funding bill this year,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “The House Ways and Means Committee chose to advance a partisan bill. Senator [Orrin G.] Hatch and I would like the Senate to move in a bipartisan manner.”
Hatch (Utah), the Senate panel’s ranking Republican, allowed that nothing in the proposal precluded a December deal but said Congress needed “breathing room.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to put ourselves under an artificial deadline,” he said.
Boxer and the Senate may hold the trump card. While the House plans to extend funding until the end of May, spending that money will require a separate authorization bill. The current authorization bill expires Oct. 1. In an attempt to force the hand of House members, the Senate could vote to extend the authorization no further than the end of the year.
AAA said Thursday that any proposal that postponed congressional action until next year would make it “nearly impossible to secure long-term transportation funding anytime soon.”
“The only way that a short-term patch of the Highway Trust Fund is acceptable is if it buys Congress a few months to work on finalizing a bipartisan, long-term agreement later this year,” said Bob Darbelnet, president of the automobile club. “Any proposal that allows this issue to be pushed into 2015 would kill the momentum to find a real funding solution.”
None of the proposals for a permanent funding fix is universally popular in the run-up to an election. They include increasing the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, giving tax breaks to U.S. corporations that have billons parked offshore to encourage them to bring those billions back, reforming corporate tax laws, diverting income-tax dollars to transportation, taxing fuel at the refinery rather than the pump, allowing more tolls on interstates and charging people for every mile they drive.