Senate Dems decry short-term highway fix

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Senate Democrats are unhappy with an emerging short-term highway funding extension, even if they appear to be gearing up to accept it. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) put out a joint statement late Thursday evening with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who was the lone "no" vote during a hearing about a deal Wyden worked out with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to extend infrastructure funding into next spring. 

The lawmakers said they were not satisfied with the temporary stopgap, even though they admitted it was better than an infrastructure funding shutdown this summer. 

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“The Finance Committee took an important first step ... to prevent a transportation shutdown,” Wyden said. “But we all know what’s needed next is a long-term bill that rebuilds our broken infrastructure, which reportedly needs $3.6 trillion dollars in repairs. This is urgent business and inaction is not an option.”

Carper had pushed for Congress to extend transportation funding until the end of the year so lawmakers would be forced to debate a long-term package during the lame-duck session that will follow the November elections.  

Carper has proposed increasing the federal gas tax, which is currently at 8.4 cents per gallon, to help pay for new infrastructure spending. 

“The time for Congress to pass and fund a long-term transportation bill is this year,” he said in the joint statement with Wyden. “It’s not a job for the next Congress, it’s the job of the current Congress. After five years of short-term extensions, punting on our responsibility to get this done for another year will hinder private sector economic growth and job creation, and will likely continue a harmful cycle of short-term extensions indefinitely.” 

The bills that began moving in both chambers on Thursday rely largely on revenue from other areas of the federal budget like pension changes and custom fees to provide an approximately $10 billion infusion of cash into the Highway Trust Fund. 

The Department of Transportation had warned that the Highway Trust Fund would run out of money next month and that it would have to cut its funding to states by 28 percent if Congress does not act quickly. 

The traditional funding source for the trust fund is revenue from the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax. However, the tax has been stagnant since 1993 and has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses in recent years as cars have become more fuel efficient. 

Budget analysts have predicted that the gap between gas tax revenues and infrastructure spending would be in the neighborhood of $16 billion next year without congressional action this summer. 

The gas tax typically brings in about $34 billion per year, compared with $50 billion in annual road and transit spending. 

Carper has pushed to increase the gas tax by 4 cents each year until it reaches 30 cents per gallon. 

He said after Thursday’s vote in the Senate that the short-term highway extension was the definition of insanity. 

“Over the last five years, we've kicked the can down the road on the Highway Trust Fund eleven times,” Carper said. “That uncertainty has kept states and cities from being able to plan and build large-scale transportation investments that have the biggest impact on the economy. So there is no reason to think that punting on this issue to the next Congress yet again will magically yield a different result.” 

Wyden took pains in the joint statement to show he supported Carper’s position, even as he signed off on a deal that undercut it. 

“Sen. Carper has extraordinary expertise when it comes to transportation, and I commend his unwavering dedication to the issue,” he said. “I am totally committed to working with Sen. Carper and our colleagues to get a long-term funding bill done this year.”