Senate panel to mark up highway funding stopgap

The Senate Finance Committee will mark up a short-term fix to keep highway projects funded until after the midterm elections on Thursday.

Transportation advocates have expressed disappointment in the temporary measure because they have been pushing for a long-term bill that would fund U.S. road and transit projects for several years.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has said that he can 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.

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Wyden has 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 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.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) has introduced an amendment to the temporary transportation funding bill that would nearly double the amount paid by drivers to fund U.S. infrastructure improvements.

Carper’s proposal would increase the federal gas tax, which is currently priced at 18.4 cents-per-gallon, by 4 cents each year until it reaches 30 cents per gallon.

The Delaware lawmaker said it was important to debate the potential gas tax increase while lawmakers are considering a temporary measure to extend transportation funding beyond the midterm elections this week.

“Multiple bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund have added more than $54 billion to our nation’s debt since 2009,” Carper said in a statement.

“That’s why in 2010, former Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and I called for a gradual increase in federal gas and diesel taxes – which have not been adjusted since 1993 – as part of any comprehensive deficit reduction plan,” he continued. “Today, I still believe that re-establishing the purchasing power of the fuel tax is the best policy for funding our federal transportation program.”