Senate committee approves two-year highway funding bill

A new, two-year federal highway bill was approved Wednesday by a key Senate committee, setting up a standoff with the House, which has proposed a longer bill that spends less money per year on roads and bridges.

After a markup hearing Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works approved its Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). The measure will be one of several pieces of legislation intended to extend highway funding, which is set to expire at the end of March next year, at current levels adjusted for inflation for two more years.

The House has thus far suggested a drastically different approach — passing a six-year highway bill that limits funding to what is brought in by federal gas tax.

But Democratic members of the Senate committee said Wednesday it was better to maximize investment now.

"Some of our colleagues say we cannot afford these investments right now," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said in remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday.  "The only thing we cannot afford is to forget the value of transportation to American greatness.

"Our history is told through great projects like the George Washington Bridge, which was built during the Great Depression," Lautenberg continued. “This is not the time to stop investing in America, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to create a transportation system to carry our country into the future.”

The Senate measure would spend about $54 billion per year on transportation projects. By comparison, the House proposal that has been talked about, which is anywhere between $230 and $280 billion, would spend about $35 billion per year on transportation, which is the amount the gas tax brings into the highway trust fund.

After eight short-term extensions of the federal highway bill that expired in 2009, transportation advocates praised the Senate committee for passing out a long-term measure, even if they generally prefer the longer six-year time frame. 

"We agree with the objectives outlined in the MAP-21 legislation to help ensure accountability and stewardship of federal surface transportation investments, improve the efficiency of the regulatory review process for transportation improvements, and leverage private sector resources through an expanded TIFIA Program," American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Executive Director John Horsley said in a statement.

"After more than two years of short-term extensions and with an economy desperate for an immediate boost, action on this multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill should occur as soon as possible," Horsley continued.

Horsley said neither bill would spend enough to meet all the infrastructure needs in the country but that it was important not to cut funding, as the House proposal would.

"We fully recognize that money alone will not deliver the transportation network our nation requires, and that is why we strongly support program reforms," he said. "We also believe that failing to supplement current Highway Trust Fund revenues would lead to a more than 30 percent cut in every state's federal highway and public transportation funds.
"With so many jobs on the line – perhaps as many as 600,000 jobs, according to the USDOT – including the current funding levels plus inflation is a key step in starting to address our nation's surface transportation needs," Horsley said.