Clock ticks on highway funding deadline

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Congress has 30 days to refill the federal government’s fund for transportation projects before it goes broke. 

The current transportation funding measure is scheduled to expire on May 31. The Department of Transportation has said it has enough money to cover projects for a month or two after that, but then it will have to cut back on payments to state and local governments who are expecting federal help with large infrastructure projects. 

Lawmakers have been trying to come up with a way to pay for an extension of the transportation funding measure for months, but as the calendar turns to May, there is no easy solution in sight. 

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House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanHispanic lawmakers face painful decision on Puerto Rico Sessions: Ryan 'needs to' endorse Trump soon Dole: Gingrich should be Trump's running mate MORE (R-Wis.) said this week it will take $10 billion just to extend the transportation funding until the end of the year – and lawmakers are not sure how they are going to pay for it yet. 

“I’ll give you the answer to your question in about three weeks, because I don’t have it right now,” Ryan said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Thursday when he was asked about the looming deadline.  

Ryan said budget writers in both chambers are just starting to get down to brass tacks when it comes to crafting a temporary patch for the transportation funding. 

“We’re working on that right now,” he said. “We’re running numbers, getting scores and working with our colleagues. [Sens.] Ron [Wyden (D-Ore.)], Orrin [Hatch (R-Utah)], [Rep.] Sandy [Levin (D-Mich.)] and I are just beginning to figure out this together.”  

The looming transportation funding deadline has dominated talk in Washington for most of the year, but consensus on both the length and financing of the package has been elusive.

Transportation advocates have pushed for a longer measure than the two-year, $109 billion infrastructure bill that was approved in 2012. That measure, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act, was extended temporarily last summer and is now set to expire at the end of the month. 

A group of House Democrats wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Friday calling for him to bring a long-term transportation funding bill to the floor – although no such measure has been crafted yet. 

“A long‐term surface transportation reauthorization bill that comprehensively addresses the Nation’s significant highway and public transit needs must be enacted,” the lawmakers wrote. 

“Anything less than a long-term reauthorization – which until recent years characterized the way in which Congress legislated in this critical area – will deprive state transportation departments of the predictable funding stream and policy certainty they need to plan and budget effectively for highway, transit, and pedestrian projects,” they continued.

The letter was signed by Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.)

The authors of the letter did not offer a funding mechanism for their proposed long-term transportation bill, but they said hinted at an increase in the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. 

“The Congressional Budget Office informs us that the current gasoline tax is inadequate to meet the funding requirements of the Trust Fund now and into the future,” the lawmakers wrote. 

“Congress will have failed to govern responsibly if, at the end of May, it repeats the short-sightedness it demonstrated last summer when it chose to extend existing surface transportation policy for less than a year rather than craft and enact a long-term reauthorization that reflects current transportation needs and challenges in our Nation’s suburbs, cities, and rural communities,” they continued. 

The gas tax has been traditional source of federal transportationfunding since it was first implemented in the 1930s. The tax has not been increased since 1993, and improvements in fuel efficiency have sapped its purchasing power. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in approximately $34 billion at its current rate. 

Transportation advocates have suggested that raising the tax or at least indexing it to inflation would be the easiest way to close the infrastructure funding shortfall, but Ryan said Thursday that is out of the question. 

“We’re not going to raise gas taxes,” he said. 

Others have suggested using revenue from taxing corporate profits that are stored oversees to pay for the new round of transportation funding. 

Ryan said he is more open to that idea, known as repatriation. But he said it would likely have to be part of a broader tax reform package that will take more time than the deadline allows.

“We have to exhaust the possibility that we can do that with the administration,” he said of the repatriation idea. 

Ryan said that leaves only the option of passing a temporary patch, which has been decried by transportation advocates as harmful to state and local governments’ ability to plan long-term construction projections. 

“I believe [House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill] Shuster [(R-Pa.)] thinks you need to get it through the year for road construction planning reasons,” Ryan said at the breakfast event. “So we’ll do a patch through the year I believe. That’s the current plan. This could change. 

“We’ve got to come up with $10 billion by the end of the month if we want to do it through the end of year,” he added. 

Transportation advocates have cautioned that the likely temporary extension should be the last one. 

"My thought process is if they have to go back to the well and figure out an algorithm for extending more than just through the summer, create an algorithm for six years," Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxFeds require new safeguards for railroad employees Uber to spend M to meet demand during Metro maintenance Virginia gov threatens to withhold DC Metro funding MORE told reporters this week. "Give America some certainty." 

The Department of Transportation has said that its Highway Trust Fund, which takes in revenue from the gas tax, will run out of money in late July or early August unless Congress passes legislation to replenish it this month.  

-This story was updated with new information at 5:18 p.m.