Senate readies transportation funding proposal

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Lawmakers in the Senate are preparing to make a “major” announcement about transportation funding on Thursday as lawmakers race to beat a deadline for a bankruptcy in the pool of money that is used to pay for road transit projects.  

The announcement will come from the top lawmakers on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The lawmakers “will make a major announcement regarding the reauthorization of the transportation bill, entitled Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21)” on Thursday morning, the panel announced.

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The press conference will be attended by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and David Vitter (La.), who is the ranking Republican on the panel. The duo is scheduled to be joined by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del), who is chairman of the EPW Committee’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, and John Barrasso (Wy.), who is the top Republican on the subpanel.

Lawmakers are facing a Sept. 30 deadline for the expiration of the current road and transit funding. Adding to the pressure is the fact that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund will go bankrupt as early as August of this year.

The coffers of the Highway Trust Fund have traditionally been filled by revenue that is collected by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. Receipts from the fuel levy have been outpaced by transportation expenses by about $20 billion per year in recent years, however.

The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and it is not indexed to inflation. It currently brings in about $34 billion per year.

But the transportation bill that is expiring in September included more than $50 billion in annual road and transit spending, which advocates say is barely enough to scratch the surface of the nation’s infrastructure needs.  

The CBO has projected that lawmakers will have to provide $100 billion above the amount of money that is expected to be brought in by the gas tax in the next couple of years to pass a six-year transportation bill, which is the length of time being sought by infrastructure advocates.

Lawmakers were only able to cobble together enough money to pass a two-year bill when they approved the expiring transportation measure in 2012. The measure was much shorter than prior transportation bills, to the chagrin of infrastructure advocates.

President Obama and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), have proposed to use money from corporate tax reform to pay for a new transportation bill. Obama has called for transferring $150 billion to the Highway Trust Fund to fund a four-year infrastructure bill, while Camp has suggested transferring $125 billion.

Boxer has previously said that she is in favor of replacing the tax on gas purchases by drivers with fees on wholesale transactions by oil companies to boost transportation revenue, but she has said that she not found much support for the proposal in either chamber.