The week ahead: Lawmakers eye highway fund exit ramp

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The months-long fight over the nation’s transportation funding will likely to come to end this week – for now. 

The Senate is expected to approve a nearly $11 billion bill to prolong federal road and transit spending for eight months this week. The chamber is expected to debate a series of amendments to the proposal, but lawmakers are unlikely to alter the proposal with days left before the traditional August recess.  

The measure, which has already been approved by the House, is intended to prevent a bankruptcy in the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund that agency officials said was likely to occur in August without congressional action. 

The Senate’s expected passage of the temporary transportation funding extension pauses a fight in Washington that threatened thousands of construction projects across the country in the run up to a critical election. 

The eight-month, $10.9 billion bill is also a source of frustration for transportation advocates, who had sought a longer piece of legislation with a more permanent infrastructure funding source. 

The normal source for funding transportation projects has been the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient. 

The current transportation bill, which is expiring in September, includes about $50 billion per year in infrastructure spending. But the gas tax only brings $34 billion per year at its current rate. 

Transportation advocates have pushed lawmakers to increase the gas tax for the first time in two decades to help close the $16 billion shortfall. 

However, lawmakers and the Obama administration have both been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more for road construction in the middle of an election year. 

Conservative groups in Washington have pushed Congress to reduce transportation funding to at least the amount of money that is brought in by the gas tax or eliminate it completely. 

But lawmakers have been equally as unwilling to cut back on construction projects in their districts as they have been to raise the gas tax to pay for them.

The solution has been the temporary extension, which is largely paid for with money from other areas of the federal budget like pension changes and custom fee increases.

Additionally this week, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday “to examine opportunities and challenges for improving truck safety on our highways.” 

The committee will also hold a hearing on Wednesday about “domestic challenges and global competition in aviation manufacturing.”