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Talks on new highway bill accelerate

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Updated 5:03 p.m.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) on Tuesday proposed a transfer of almost $20 billion from the general tax fund to help sustain transportation funding until next April.

The funding would provide a bridge that would allow more than 117,000 transportation projects that employ 700,000 workers nationwide to continue through the year. Without the transfer, federal officials have warned that money for the nation's major transportation projects would begin to slow after Aug. 1 as the Highway Trust Fund dwindled.

Separately, senators said Tuesday that they are nearing an agreement on a plan to replenish the highway fund. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) told reporters Tuesday to expect a formal announcement later in the day, a move that will signal the most significant progress on the issue in months.

Wyden said that when he left his aides for a midday luncheon with fellow Democrats, they were in throes of negotiations that were meant to put the “final details” on a bipartisan plan. “You will probably get an announcement here in the next couple hours,” Wyden told reporters, signaling a deal was imminent. “We will have numbers for you in  the next couple of hours.”

Both he and Carper declined to specify the parameters of their emerging plan.

Most states get about half of their transportation money from the federal government and the Transportation Department recently predicted the Highway Trust Fund that provides much of the money will begin running out as early as Aug. 1.

Pressure is mounting on Congress to quickly resolve an impasse over how to replenish the fund. For years, congressional leaders have sought to pass an ambitious, long-term plan to finance the nation's major roads, rail and aviation construction projects, but years of fiscal policy disagreements have stunted any progress.

"I prefer something real long-term because it's very hard for state directors of transportation to determine what they're going to do, how they're going to do it if they have very short-term funding," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday. He conceded however that an ambitious plan probably isn't going to materialize.

"It's an important piece of legislation, the question is not are we going to do it, the question -- we are going to do it, and the question is for how long," he said.

With pressure growing earlier this year, the Obama administration considered allowing states to collect tolls on interstate highways to raise revenue for roadway repairs. The proposal, contained in a four-year, $302 billion White House transportation bill, would have reversed a long-standing federal prohibition on most interstate tolling. But the idea quickly earned widespread criticism.

Later, a bipartisan proposal to hike the 18.4-cent federal tax for the first time since 1993 came from Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). It won quick endorsement from an array of advocates ranging from road builders to AAA but was dismissed by the GOP-controlled House, where talk of tax increases is a nonstarter.

The impasse has caught the attention of state and local governments, who on Monday sent a letter to House and Senate leader arguing that the nation's economic vitality rests on ensuring the money is there to complete construction projects.

The Monday letter was signed by the “Big 7,” a group of nonpartisan organizations that advocate for state and local governments. They are: National Conference of State Legislatures, National Governors Association, Council of State Governments, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors and the International City/County Management Association.

Even if senators reach a new agreement in the coming days, its fate in the sharply-divided Senate is unclear, as are its prospects in the House, where lead negotiators have struggled to reach consensus on how to proceed.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.