Senate lurches closer to highway fund stopgap

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The Senate Finance Committee inched closer Thursday to bipartisan agreement on a transportation infrastructure stopgap that would carry federal road and transit funding through the midterm elections.

The progress came when Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) agreed to delay a vote on a $9 billion patch and use the extra time to address Republican concerns.

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“There really isn't the time for the two parties to go to their respective corners and battle it out,” Wyden said during a hearing.

Lawmakers are struggling to come up with a way to pay for a transportation funding bill to replace the current infrastructure appropriations bill, which is set to expire at the end of September.

Complicating the deadline facing lawmakers further, the Department of Transportation has said that it will run out of money for its Highway Trust Fund in August if Congress does not act.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the Finance Committee's ranking Republican, said Wednesday that he could only agree to a transportation funding package if it includes “a significant number of spending cuts to go along with any revenue increases” — even in a temporary fix.

The Utah senator encouraged lawmakers to “keep an eye on ultimate goal, which is producing a bill that can be passed in both chambers.”

Other Republicans on the committee agreed.

"We're either going to have to accept a dramatically smaller highway program, or we're going to have to figure out a way to fund it,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) went further, arguing that the federal government should consider getting out of the transportation funding business altogether.

“I think it makes a lot of sense ... to return this money to the states," Portman said. "It's not even allowing to return to the states. It's allowing it to stay in the states."

Portman said the current transportation funding situation, which has involved transferring money from other areas of the federal budget, was unsustainable.

“Since 2008, we've put $54 billion into the trust fund," he said, repeating the figure for emphasis.

Democrats on the panel, however, quickly objected to the proposal to eliminate federal transportation funding, which is known in some transportation circles as “devolution."

"There's a reason we call it the interstate highway system," Wyden said. “It's federal in nature."

The traditional funding source for transportation projects has long been 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.) said he was planning to introduce an amendment to the temporary transportation funding bill that would nearly double the gas tax.

The Delaware lawmaker said his proposal, which would increase the gas tax by 4 cents each year until it reaches 30 cents per gallon, would generate enough money to pay for a multi-year transportation bill.

“My amendment would gradually restore the purchasing power of the 1993 gas tax through three annual 4-cent increases, and then index it to inflation,” Carper said. “This would cover a six-year bill at level funding plus inflation. I actually think we should consider increasing funding in infrastructures, but in the meantime, we should at least pay for what we’re already spending.”
 
GOP members of the Finance Committee objected to the idea of increasing the amount that is paid by drivers without considering spending cuts first.

"It is hard to support looking for additional revenue from the American people if we're not doing something," Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said.

Toomey identified a controversial high-speed rail proposal in California and the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky as areas where transportation funding could be cut.

“I'm sure the National Corvette Museum is nice, but I’m not sure it should be a national priority," he said.