Advocates rally behind Senate highway bill

Transportation advocates are rallying behind a temporary highway funding extension that was approved by the Senate on Tuesday that would force lawmakers to revisit the issue of infrastructure spending before the end of the year. 

The Senate voted Tuesday to twice-amend a nearly $11 billion transportation funding bill that it received from the House, changing the expiration date of the measure from May 2015 to December 31. 

The decision sets off a standoff with House lawmakers with just two days remaining before the Department of Transportation has warned that it will have to begin cutting back payments to state and local governments by as much as 28 percent. 

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Transportation advocates cheered the Senate’s action, despite the increased possibility of gridlock in the nation’s road and transit funding. 

“[Tuesday’s] votes held some positive signs for the future of our nation’s transportation system. The Senate overwhelmingly rejected a move to dismantle our key infrastructure fund, and instead challenged themselves to take up a long-term funding solution this year,” Transportation for America Director James Corless said in a statement. 

Republicans have maintained that they will remove the Senate’s changes from the transportation funding package and send the measure back to the upper chamber. 

Senate Democrats have meanwhile sought to downplay the increased risk of lawmakers leaving town on Thursday without passing a final transportation bill because of the bicameral game of chicken. 

“This work is going to be done this week,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said during Tuesday’s evening’s debate. 

“This is non-negotiable,” Wyden continued. “The Congress is going to get this resolved. In no way, shape or form are we going to have the transportation equivalent of a government shutdown.” 

Democrats are pushing for the shorter deadline to keep alive the possibility of debating a long-term transportation bill after the November elections, when they think it will be easier to push for an increase in the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. 

The gas tax has been the traditional source for transportation projects since the creation of the Highway Trust Fund in the 1950s. 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. 

Transportation advocates, who have pushed for years for a gas tax increase, are hoping the House will be the chamber to cave on the temporary funding patch this week. 

“The passage of the bipartisan amendment, proposed by Sens. [Barbara] Boxer [D-Calif.], [Bob] Corker [R-Tenn.] and [Tom] Carper [D-Del.], sends a strong signal that Congress recognizes the importance of passing a multi-year, sustainable funding solution to fix the nation’s transportation crisis and is willing to put politics aside and work together to enhance American mobility and improve safety,” AAA Auto Club President Bob Darbelnet said in a statement. 

“The House must now follow suit and act immediately to pass this amended bill, which will prevent the immediate insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund,” Darbelnet continued. 

However, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has indicated already that the House is not going to budge.

“I just want to make clear, if the Senate sends a highway bill over here with those provisions, we're going to strip it out and put the House-passed provisions back in and send it back to the Senate," Boehner told reporters on Tuesday. 

House GOP leaders have expressed confidence that the Senate would ultimately accept their version of the transportation-funding package because neither party is eager to be blamed for shutting down construction projects in the middle of an election year.