Wyden pushes stopgap highway bill

Greg Nash

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday proposed a short-term fix to keep highway projects funded until after the midterm elections.

The announcement came as a disappointment to transportation advocates, who have pushed for a long-term bill that would fund U.S. road and transit projects for several years.

But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he could only muster $9 billion from other areas of the federal budget to carry infrastructure funding until Dec. 31, which would punt the larger funding decision until the lame-duck session after the elections.

Wyden called his three-month plan an “imperative first step” toward a long-term solution.

“Strong transportation and infrastructure are critical to a growing and healthy American economy. I hope to see the committee take decisive bipartisan action and send a clear message that stabilizing the Highway Trust Fund is a priority now,” Wyden said in a statement.

“Failure to act now could lead to a transportation shutdown, leaving our roads in disrepair and putting thousands of hard-working Americans out of their jobs," he added.

The current federal transportation funding measure is scheduled to expire at the end of September. Complicating matters further, the Department of Transportation has said that its Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in August if Congress does not act.

The traditional funding source for transportation projects has long been collected from the federal gas tax, which is currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon. Infrastructure expenses have outpaced revenue from the gas tax by about $16 billion annually in recent years, partly due to increases in fuel efficiency and a decline in driving.

Transportation advocates such as the AAA Auto Club have pushed for lawmakers to increase the gas tax for the first time since 1993 to pay for a longer transportation bill, but the idea appears to be a non-starter, with many lawmakers and the White House opposed.

AAA Managing Director Of Government Relations Jill Ingrassia declined to criticize Wyden for offering a short-term patch on Tuesday, but stopped short of endorsing his proposal. 

"We appreciate that Chairman Wyden has demonstrated his clear desire to tackle the tough issue of how we avoid an immediate transportation funding crisis,” Ingrassia said in a statement to The Hill. “AAA agrees that Congress must act swiftly, but a longer term, more stable solution needs be the primary target, not a short term patch."   

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, meanwhile, accused Democrats of wanting to increase transportation funding without cutting spending in other areas of the budget.

“In order to find a real solution to resolve financing for the Highway Trust Fund, the committee must act in a bipartisan manner and forge compromise by including a sizeable amount of reductions in wasteful and low-priority spending,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, even after weeks of negotiating, today’s Chairman’s mark does not accomplish this goal,” Hatch continued. “Moving forward, I will work in good faith with the chairman and members of the committee to create a balanced bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president.”  

Transportation advocates cheered the possibility of a bipartisan compromise last week when Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) called for lawmakers to implement a 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase over the next two years to pay for a new transportation bill.

Corker was the first high-profile Republican in Congress to endorse a gas tax increase in several years.

Wyden’s proposal does not make any adjustments to the gas tax beyond allowing the federal government to keep collecting it beyond Sept. 30.

Transportation advocates say the gas tax would currently be at about 30 cents per gallon if it had been indexed to inflation 21 years ago. Corker and Murphy said last week their proposal would generate $164 billion that would easily fill the Highway Trust Fund with enough money to pay for a multi-year transportation bill.

Wyden’s push for a stopgap is a shift for the senator; he had previously opposed temporary funding measures as a “tragic mistake.”

“Congress needs to find a sustainable source of funds that will keep this crunch from happening again,” he said during a May committee meeting.

"It would be a tragic mistake to let highway funding become another stop-and-go extender like Medicare physician payments and many important tax incentives,” he said at the time. “Relying on short-term policies, emergency patches, and temporary extensions makes forward-looking strategies impossible, and when it comes to infrastructure, planning ahead is absolutely essential.”

— This story was updated at 5:06 p.m.