Advocates fence over meaning of highway vote

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Supporters and opponents of boosting federal transportation spending debated Wednesday the implications of an overwhelming House vote to extend infrastructure funding into next spring.

The House on Tuesday approved on a 367-55 vote a bill to spend nearly $11 billion over the next eight months to replenish the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Highway Trust Fund.

The approval came over the objection of influential conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the Heritage Action foundation, which transportation advocates said Wednesday bodes well for the broader debate about infrastructure funding.

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"Folks — the reviews are in: Though the short-term highway bill passed by the House on Tuesday falls woefully short of the long-term resolution that’s needed, yesterday’s vote represented a breakthrough for the House GOP, which sided with governance over those who would rather stomp their feet and scream 'no,' " Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) spokesman Michael O'Brien said in an email to reporters.

When the votes were cast on Tuesday, 181 Republicans voted in favor of the transportation funding extension, while only 45 were opposed.

Heritage Action communications director Dan Holler disagreed, however, that the large vote in favor of replenishing the federal government's transportation funding meant his group's conservative agenda had been defeated.

Holler argued that the effort to convince lawmakers to oppose the temporary infrastructure funding package was ultimately about convincing them to drastically alter the way transportation projects in the nation are paid for.

"Too many folks in Washington view congressional actions through a very narrow lens," Holler said in an email to The Hill.

"When you step back and view the events of the past month through a wide angle lens, you realize conservatives have made significant progress in what we all realize is a long-term effort," Holler continued.

Prior to the House vote, the DOT had warned that its Highway Trust Fund would run out of money in August unless Congress took action to refill it.

The usual funding source for transportation projects is revenue collected from the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax. The tax has been unchanged since 1993, however, and has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient.

The gas tax brings in about $34 billion per year, but the federal government currently spends approximately $50 billion annually on road and transit projects.

The DOT told lawmakers that the states would have to take a 28 percent funding cut if the highway fund is allowed to go broke, although Heritage Action has disputed the agency's analysis.

Heritage Action and the Club for Growth have argued that direct federal spending only pays for about one-quarter of U.S. transportation projects, though advocates counter that the difference is made up in reimbursements to state and local governments.

The conservative groups have supported efforts to eliminate the gas tax, transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants, a process that is known in transportation circles as "devolution."

Holler said Wednesday that his group's push back against the temporary highway funding bill was about building support for the broader effort to roll back federal infrastructure funding.

"For Heritage Action, this was never about getting TEA in July," Holler said in reference to Transportation Empowerment Act that has been introduced by conservatives in the House and Senate.

"It was an opportunity to create a climate in DC that made TEA more appealing," Holler continued. "Given the new co-sponsors and off-the-record conversations we've had, those efforts have been tremendously successful. So while we would have liked to see Republicans reject the bailout or fight for serious reforms, there is no doubt the debate has shifted our direction."

AEM's O'Brien had a starkly different takeaway from Tuesday's House vote, arguing that Republicans overwhelmingly sided with transportation advocates on the need for at least a temporary infrastructure funding patch.

"Lawmakers on Tuesday sided with the voters and small businesses in their districts over fringe conservative groups in Washington," O'Brien said. "A precedent has been set — Heritage and the Club simply aren’t relevant on questions of highway and infrastructure policy." 

The Senate is likely to take up the House's version of the transportation bill as early as next week.