Advocates cheer $275B Senate highway bill

Advocates cheer $275B Senate highway bill
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Transportation advocates are cheering the introduction of a bill that calls for spending $275 billion on the nation's roads over the next six years on Tuesday. 

The measure, known as the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act, calls for appropriating nearly $43 billion per year to the federal government's highway program. The spending would be contingent upon lawmakers coming up with a way to pay for it. 

But that fact did not stop transportation advocates who have been seeking such a multi-year infrastructure funding for a decade from cheering the introduction of the measure on Tuesday. 

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"Sens. [Jim] Inhofe [R-Okla.], [Barbara] Boxer [D-Calif.], [David] Vitter [R-La.] and [Tom] Carper [D-Del.] have stepped up and done their job by outlining a multi-year highway and public transit program that will make America more competitive," American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) President Pete Ruane said in a statement.  

"Now it’s time for the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means committees to do theirs and provide the path forward with a sustainable revenue stream for the Highway Trust Fund," Ruane continued. "Transportation investment is a core federal responsibility. It’s time to transcend politics and do the right thing for America.”

The federal government's transportation spending is typically funded by a combination the gas tax and transfers from other areas of the budget. Lawmakers face a July 31 deadline for the expiration of the current infrastructure measure but are deadlocked on how to pay for an extension.  

The sponsors of the Senate bill said after introducing the measure that it is time for Congress to find a long-term solution to the problem.

“Our nation’s roads and highways have suffered under too many short-term extensions, which have led to higher costs, more waste, and less capability to prioritize major modernization projects to address growing demands on our interstates," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  

"The DRIVE Act will provide states and local communities with the certainty they deserve to plan and construct infrastructure projects efficiently," he added.

Advocates who have been pushed for a multi-year transportation bill for years said Tuesday they agreed with Inhofe.    

“Today we applaud Chairman Inhofe, Ranking Member Boxer and members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for introducing the DRIVE Act, a bill that answers the National League of Cities’ call for greater certainty that only a long term transportation bill can provide," National League of Cities (NLC) CEO Clarence Anthony said in a statement.

“For cities and towns, the DRIVE Act is an improvement over the status quo," he continued. "The bill would improve local control of funding under the Surface Transportation Program and the Transportation Alternatives Program. But there is much more that could — and should — be done. The National League of Cities looks forward to continuing our strong partnership with Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Boxer to achieve our goal of enacting a forward-looking, long-term, multi-modal transportation bill.”

Lawmakers have grappled for the better part of a decade with a gap in transportation funding that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year.

The federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents per gallon, has been the traditional source of transportation funding since its inception in the 1930s. But the tax has not been increased since 1993, 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 approximately $34 billion annually. 

As a result of the shortfall, Congress has not passed a transportation bill that last longer than two years since 2005. 

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion in addition to the gas tax revenue to close the gap long enough to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill, such as the measure offered in the Senate.  

Transportation supporters have pushed for a gas tax increase to pay for a long-term transportation bill, but Republican lawmakers have ruled out such a hike

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the transportation funding gap in recent years, resulting in temporary fixes, such as a two-month patch that was approved by lawmakers last month. 

Transportation advocates have complained that temporary extensions prevent state and local governments from completing badly needed long-term infrastructure projects.  

“America’s retailers depend on access to efficient and reliable transportation to move goods across the country and into the hands of consumers every day,” Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) Vice President for Government Affairs Kelly Kolb said. “A long term investment in vital corridors and crucial connections in our system is critical for the future of our economy and for maintaining global competitiveness.”

The sponsors of the DRIVE Act that was introduced on Tuesday have said they are deferring to appropriators in the Senate on how the multiyear transportation bill should be financed.

The measure calls for spending $42.9 billion per year on the Federal-Aid Highway Program.

The measure also includes $675 million per year for the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which allows states to apply for federally backed, low-interest loans to help pay for large construction programs. 

The measure also includes approximately $240 million per year for the National Park Service and about $1.3 billion per year for federal lands and tribal transportation programs.