Rockefeller worries short-term highway fix may be only option

Greg Nash

Congress may only be able to reach a short-term agreement to extend federal road and transit spending this summer, the chairman of the Senate committee handling transportation issues said Wednesday.

"I worry that any solution that can pass this Congress will again be a short-term fix," Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) said during a hearing of his panel.

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Rockefeller said failing to find a long-term fix would damage the nation’s economy.

"This will do very little to improve our infrastructure needs and support our economic future," he continued. 

Lawmakers are scrambling to close a shortfall in transit funding that is estimated to be as high as $15 billion before the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund runs out of money. The fund is expected to go broke in August without congressional action. 

The current transportation bill is also scheduled to expire in September, even if the DOT does not run out of money for road and transit projects this summer. 

The Senate has proposed a six-year, $265 billion replacement for the expiring transportation bill, but the upper chamber has not yet identified how it intends to pay for its proposal. 

The traditional source for transportation funding is revenue that is collected by the federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents per gallon. The tax only brings is about $34 billion per year, however, and the current level of transportation spending that the Senate is trying to maintain is about $50 billion annually. 

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasts that lawmakers will have to find an extra $100 billion in addition to money that is brought in by the gas tax to pay for a six-year transportation bill. 

Rockefeller, who is leaving office at the end of his term, said Wednesday that his committee and other Senate panels were “hard at work finding a solution.”

“Last month, EPW [Environment and Public Works] Chairman [Barbara] Boxer [D-Calif.] marked up a long-term, six-year highway bill,” Rockefeller said. “In the Finance Committee, my colleagues and I are in the process of identifying funding solutions for our infrastructure needs.

“I am very hopeful that we will reach a deal before the August recess,” he added. 

Transportation advocates raised questions  Wednesday about whether the recent defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) would make the lower chamber less likely to agree to any infrastructure funding deal this summer. 

Rockefeller said lawmakers had no choice but to find a funding source.

“The Highway Trust Fund is going broke sometime this summer, and states are already cancelling and slowing down important construction projects,” he said. “In my opinion, allowing our transportation programs to run out of money is not an option.” 

Rockefeller urged his colleagues to agree on more than just a temporary patch.

“I am a firm believer that the federal government has a major responsibility when it comes to investing in our nation’s infrastructure,” he said. “We need to be leaders. We need to create a coherent and unified mission for our federal surface transportation programs and invest in those programs.”