House passes summer road funding fix

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The House voted Tuesday to extend federal transportation funding for two months, in an attempt to prevent an interruption in the nation’s infrastructure funding at month’s end.

The decision to punt a long-term funding extension to the summer was approved by a 387-35 vote, over the objection of Democrats, who argued Congress should have found a way to pay for a longer-term extension. 

“We have known for months that this day was coming, and yet we have made no progress finding a solution to funding highways, transit and other important surface transportation programs,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said during debate on the measure. 

Twelve Republicans and 23 Democrats voted against the bill. Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) voted “present.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, White House officials said President Obama is willing to sign the temporary transportation funding extension if it is passes the Senate later this week, even though he would prefer a longer-term solution.

“Unfortunately, [the legislation] represents yet one more short-term extension coming on top of the several short-term extensions that preceded it,” the White House said in a policy statement. “This continuing pattern of uncertainty has already caused several states to cancel or defer projects during the height of summer construction season and has undermined the ability of states and localities to keep Americans at work building and repairing the Nation’s roads, bridges, and transit systems.”  

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the House also said that, although they preferred a long-term extension, they nevertheless wanted to avoid missing the deadline.

“The consequences of not doing it [the extension] would be very, very negative,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.

On Monday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he hoped to tie a long-term Highway Trust Fund renewal to tax reform. Negotiators will work to find funding sources to sustain an extension lasting beyond more than just a few months at a time.

“This two-month extension was not my preference,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). “My preference is to buckle down, work hard, find the dollars and have a long-term surface transportation bill that’s sustainable.”

The traditional source of transportation funding has been revenue from the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and improvements in auto 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 $34 billion at its current rate. 

Transportation advocates have pushed for an increase in the gas tax to pay for a long-term infrastructure package, but Republicans say asking drivers to pay more at the pump is a nonstarter. 

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) expressed pessimism that Congress would be able to craft a long-term Highway Trust Fund bill by the new July deadline. He speculated that a short-term fix would be thrown into an omnibus appropriations bill funding the entire federal government or some other massive legislation.

“We’re moving towards the omnibus, where we’ll put everything together. It will be like a stew: trade, transportation, lollipops, put them all in there,” Pascrell said.

Transportation advocates said they were relieved that Congress is moving to prevent an interruption in the nation’s infrastructure funding, but they lamented Congress’s continued inability to reach a lasting deal.

“They failed to find a long-term solution to increase investment, which leads to more potholes, overcrowded transit cars, and more deficient bridges,” American Society of Civil Engineers President Robert Stevens said in a statement. “We hope that by setting a short-fuse July deadline, Congress will avoid another lull into complacency, and they will truly feel the urgency and have the resolve to properly fix the backbone of our nation’s economy.”