Congress scrambling to protect highway funds

Congress scrambling to protect highway funds

Lawmakers inched closer Tuesday to settling for a temporary infrastructure funding patch, despite appeals from the states for a long-term spending bill. 

The current transportation bill is scheduled to expire in May, and lawmakers are struggling to come up with a way to pay for an extension. 

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Both parties have long said they would prefer a long-term deal. But faced with the potential shutdown of highway programs, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are now signaling their views that a stopgap funding bill might be necessary.  

“Spring starts in a week and that really is the traditional beginning of the construction season for the year,” said Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioPipeline regulators pressed to act on gas storage leaks Bill introduced to end the draft Watchdog finds inefficiencies in US airline oversight MORE, the top ranking Democrat on the panel. 

“States have already notified the federal government that they will be delaying or postponing or canceling projects,” DeFazio continued. “I expect the number of canceled or delayed projects will only grow over the coming weeks if we don’t have a short-term bill.” 

The looming funding deadline has long been a source of consternation across Capitol Hill. Lawmakers need to come up with a way to pay for at least a temporary extension of a nearly $11 billion transportation bill that was approved last summer that is now set to expire on May 31. 

DeFazio told the panel Tuesday that it would at least a similar amount of funding would be needed to convince states to carry out projects scheduled to begin around the expiration of the measure expiring in May. 

“Yes, we have a common objective on a six-year bill, but just to get to the end of this year with current anemic levels of spending, will require ... just slightly less than $10 billion,” he said. 

State and local transportation officials have lamented the number of short-term transportation funding bills that have been approved in recent years. They told lawmakers Tuesday that another patch now would make it harder for them to plan long-range construction projects. 

“Governors need certainty at the federallevel so states can plan for and make infrastructure improvements, as well as maintain our existing systems,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) told the panel. “A long-term federal transportation reauthorization will provide that certainty.” 

McCrory took issue with conservatives who have supported the idea of eliminating the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax to reduce the federal government’s role in transportation funding. The proposal, known as “devolution,” would transfer responsibility for infrastructure projects involving highways and bridges to states, while converting most federal transportation funding programs into block grants. 

He said states are pursuing alternative revenue streams such as increased use of public-private partnerships and taking advantage of low interest rates to issue bonds.

“But make no mistake,” the governor said, “part of the solution must be continuation of a strong, flexible and reliable federal program, which currently makes up almost 28 percent of our total transportation budget.”

While a short-term deal appears increasingly likely, lawmakers are not yet giving up on a more sustainable deal.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said passing long-term funding was a “priority” for Republican leaders in the House, even as the clock ticks and the May 31 deadline approaches. 

“It’s one of our committee’s top priorities and it should be a top priority for the nation,” he said. “We are actively working together with ... both sides of the aisle, working with our leadership in the House and the Senate and the Ways and Means Committee and others to figure out the funding issues.” 

Shuster added it was too early to declare a long-term measure dead, despite the fact that there are just two months left and no specific transportation funding legislation has been proposed in either chamber. 

“Because both sides of the aisle, both sides of the Capitol and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are talking about the need for a long-term surface transportation bill, I feel confident that we will get there,” he said.