Sen. Murray: Congress 'needs to act' on highway funding

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Tuesday that Congress "needs to act" on approving a new round of transportation funding or risk creating another version of the 2013 government shutdown. 

"The Department of Transportation, and many of us in Congress, have been warning for months that the Highway Trust Fund needs more revenue to pay for these critical projects in my home state and those across the country," Murray said in a speech on the Senate floor.

“Without it, the trust fund will reach critically low levels next month," Murray continued. "This is coming just a few months after Republicans pushed us into a government shutdown. And if Congress fails to act soon, families, businesses, and states would see another shutdown, this time with highway projects around the country."

Lawmakers are scrambling to come up with a way to replenish the Department of Transportation's depleted Highway Trust Fund before a predicted August bankruptcy date.

The traditional funding source for transportation projects has been revenue that is collected from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses in recent years as cars have become more fuel efficient, however.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has said that the gap between gas tax revenue and the current level of federal road and transit spending is in the neighborhood of $16 billion per year. The agency has warned that a bankruptcy in the Highway Trust Fund would result in states taking a 28 percent cut in transportation funding and possibly cost the U.S. 700,000 jobs.
As Murray was speaking Tuesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the upper chamber was moving closer to a deal that would prevent the transportation funding cut off Murray was warning about.

"The way I would characterize it is we are making progress on avoiding a shutdown that would in my view cost our country tens of thousands of jobs,” Wyden told reporters earlier on Tuesday.

Murray said Tuesday that she "had hoped that we would be able to get this done by now.

"The last thing the American people want to see right now is another countdown clock on the nightly news," she said. "But we still have a chance to get this done before it’s too late. Instead of lurching to yet another crisis, and putting construction projects at risk—let’s work together and do the right thing for families, workers, and the economy."

Murray placed blame for the shutdown on conservative Republicans in the House, comparing the possibility of the Highway Trust Fund to last year’s government shutdown. 

“I know Republican leaders, once again, are worried about their Tea Party fringe pushing them into another unnecessary crisis," she said. "But I hope they are able to push them aside and work with us to get this done."

Murray noted that polls showed Republicans took the blunt of the blame for the 2013 government shutdown and predicted the same result would happen this year if a transportation funding bankruptcy is allowed to occur.

“Republicans saw how devastating it was for them—and their constituents—when they hurt the country with the government shutdown,” she said. “And I am hopeful that gives them any additional incentive they may need to work with us this time.

“State and local governments, workers, businesses, and drivers are looking to us to resolve this crisis and avoid another shutdown,” Murray continued. “States can’t afford important highway construction projects without the Highway Trust Fund. Families can’t afford to have a few members of Congress putting jobs at risk once again. And, with the clock winding down, we can’t afford to put this off any longer.”

The transportation department has said that it will begin cutting back on payments to state and local governments on Aug. 1 unless Congress reaches an infrastructure funding deal.

-Bernie Becker and Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.