Congress sets new deadline on highways

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Before scuttling out of town for the Memorial Day recess, Congress met a key deadline by passing a short-term extension of federal highway funds.

The punt by lawmakers means they’ll have to pass another bill by July 31 to keep road and infrastructure projects funded, however. And it won’t be as easy then to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the projects.

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The Highway Trust Fund relies on a federal gas tax for its money, and it is expected to run dry in July. That means lawmakers will have to find a different funding source.

The 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t been hiked since 1993, and it no longer keeps up with current transportation spending. The federal government spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, while the gas tax only collects about $34 billion.

Congress will likely be under further pressure to extend the Highway Trust Fund in light of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia this month.

Democrats this week pointed to the accident as evidence of needing to maintain the nation's infrastructure.

“We in Congress can help. We can and must make this investment before another terrible accident, before another life is tragically and needlessly lost,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), who tried unsuccessfully to add $750 million in funding to the bill to help railroads implement communications and signal systems to track train locations and speeds.

House GOP leaders originally wanted to renew the Highway Trust Fund through the end of the year. But they struggled to come up with the $10 billion necessary to cover the cost through that timeframe. 

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) acknowledged that Congress will likely turn to yet another short-term patch again in just two months.

“We will more than likely have to pass another short-term patch before the August recess and take steps to ensure the trust fund remains solvent,” Shuster said.

Congress has not passed a transportation package lasting more than two years since 2005, instead resorting to multiple temporary extensions over the last decade.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said this week that he hopes to pair the next Highway Trust Fund extension with tax reform.

But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-ranking Democrat, expressed skepticism that a tax reform proposal from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanSenate Dems: Add Flint aid to spending deal Clinton, Trump bring infrastructure hopes to White House Shutdown risk grows over Flint MORE (R-Wis.) could be prepared in just two months.

“It's very difficult to perceive them — Mr. Ryan — coming up with a comprehensive tax reform package between now and July 31. But if the majority leader thinks that can be done, and he believes that that will produce sufficient revenues to fund the highway program, we will be interested in seeing what he has to offer,” Hoyer said.

Last year, Congress ultimately found revenue to pay for the Highway Trust Fund through obscure measures such as pension smoothing, customs user fees and money from an account for dealing with leaking underground storage tanks.

Transportation advocates are hoping that the new deadline when funding truly runs out will force Congress to find a solution.

“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,” American Society of Civil Engineers President Robert Stevens said in a statement. 

— Keith Laing contributed.