Transport advocates want highway bill after $8.2B water agreement

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Transportation advocates in Washington are hoping lawmakers will carry momentum from a recently completed $8.2 billion water infrastructure funding bill over to approving a new round of road and transit spending this summer. 

Lawmakers in the House and Senate announced on Thursday evening that they had reached an agreement on a new Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) after lengthy negotiations that lasted the better part of six months. 

The ports and waterways bill provides infrastructure advocates with the first transportation funding victory in Congress since lawmakers exempted air traffic controllers from controversial sequester budget cuts last year. 

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Associated Equipment Distributors (AED) President Brian McGuire said transportation advocates are hungry for more victories with the clock ticking down on a projected bankruptcy in the trust fund that is used to pay for roads and public transit systems. 

“AED applauds Chairmen Shuster and Boxer for working in a bipartisan manner to complete a Water Resources Development Act conference report,” McGuire said in a statement. “The legislation provides much needed investments in our nation’s water resources infrastructure while reforming the Army Corps of Engineers and improving project delivery. It will create jobs, support economic growth, and deliver substantial benefits to our nation’s competitiveness.” 

McGuire quickly added that lawmakers had more work to do when it comes to transportation funding. 

“Congress’ job is not done,” he said. “We now urge lawmakers to immediately turn to reauthorizing the federal highway program and avoiding the Highway Trust Fund’s imminent collapse.”  

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund will run out of money as early as August. 

The trust fund is traditionally filled with revenue from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The fuel levy has not been increased since 1993, and it was not indexed to inflation when it was last hiked, however. 

The result has been receipts being outpaced by infrastructure expenses by as much as $20 billion per year. 

The current surface transportation bill, which is scheduled to expire in September, includes approximately $50 billion in road and transit spending. However, the gas tax currently brings only brings in about $34 billion. 

Lawmakers are searching for a solution to the transportation funding shortfall. 

Senate Democrats have said that they will unveil their version of the new transportation bill next week.

The leading senators on transportation issues did not say how they intend to pay for their new round of proposed infrastructure funding. 

Some Democrats in the House have pushed to raise the gas tax to approximately 33 cents per gallon, arguing that drivers would be paying about that much now at the pump if the fuel levy had been indexed to inflation when it was raised by lawmakers. 

Republicans and the Obama administration have both resisted the idea of asking drivers to pay more when they fill up their tanks in the middle of an election, however. 

President Obama has proposed that lawmakers use approximately $150 billion from a corporate tax reform package that is considered unlikely to be approved this year to pay for a four-year, $302 billion plan. 

Transportation advocates have pushed for a longer funding bill than the current measure, which was approved in 2012. They argue that state and local governments need a longer period of certainty that money for transportation projects is coming from Washington to plan and complete large infrastructure projects. 

The lawmakers who negotiated the conference report on the water infrastructure bill said their agreement is proof that bipartisanship on transportation funding can be achieved, even in the current badly divided Congress. 

“We are proud to deliver what the American public wants and needs,” Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), David Vitter (R-La.) and Reps. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said in a statement announcing the agreement. 

“This conference report maintains ports and navigation routes for commerce and the movement of goods, provides flood control that protects lives and property, and restores vital ecosystems to preserve our natural heritage,” the lawmakers continued. “This important measure will strengthen our Nation’s infrastructure and keep America competitive in the global marketplace.” 

The water bill identifies about $8 billion worth of new water infrastructure projects and authorizes funding for them, though the actual money will be doled out by appropriations committees. 

Transportation advocates have long sought a new round of investments in ports and waterways, arguing that additional funding is necessary to prepare the nation’s cargo facilities for larger ships that will pass through the Panama Canal, which is currently being deepened. 

If the agreement the lawmakers negotiated is ultimately approved, it will be the first new water infrastructure funding package to be passed by Congress since 2008. 

AED’s McGuire said he hoped the spirit of cooperation that has brought the water funding package to the brink of becoming law is quickly translated to the highway funding crisis. 

“The bipartisan cooperation demonstrated by this success is a model we encourage both chambers to follow when working on surface transportation legislation and ensuring the [Highway Trust Fund’s] long-term solvency,” McGuire said.