Senate panel approves $275B transportation plan

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The Senate committee overseeing the nation's infrastructure on Wednesday approved a plan to spend $275 billion on roads over the next six years, but lawmakers will still have to come up with a way to pay for it. 

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 is contingent upon lawmakers coming up with a way to pay for it, but the sponsors of the proposed legislation said Wednesday that its approval is a first step toward solving the nation's infrastructure funding problems.

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Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the six-year transportation funding plan "will put America back on the map as the best place to do business," if lawmakers can come up with a way to pay for it. 

"Unfortunately, what used to be the best transportation system in the world is now deteriorating, and our global competitors are greatly outpacing us in their infrastructure investment," he said. "American businesses rely on an efficient and reliable transportation network. More than 250 million vehicles traverse the highway system each year and businesses require a reliable transportation network to operate." 

The federal government's transportation spending is typically funded by a combination of 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. 

Democrats on the panel expressed optimism that the long-term spending plan approved on Wednesday could become a vehicle that ends the gridlock over infrastructure funding. 

"This bill comes not a minute too soon, because we are 38 days away from the expiration of the current highway program extension," said Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerDem senator pushes EPA on asbestos regulations Trump was wrong: Kaine is a liberal in a moderate's clothing Feds weigh whether carbon pollution should be measured in highway performance MORE (D-Calif.), who is the top-ranking Democrat on the Public Works Committee.

"Shortly after that, the Highway Trust Fund, which funds highways and transit, will go broke," Boxer continued. "That is what you call an emergency, because states rely heavily on the Highway Trust Fund."  

Lawmakers have been grappling 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 it 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. 

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 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. If lawmakers cannot come up with a way to pay for the long-term transportation bill by the end of July, they will likely have to settle for another short-term patch. 

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

"We have 61,300 structurally deficient bridges in the U.S., and 50 percent of our roads are in less than good condition," Boxer said. "That is unacceptable. Our transportation systems used to be the envy of the world, but now we lag behind our overseas competitors in infrastructure investment." 

Boxer added that millions of construction jobs would be at risk if lawmakers allow the transportation funding to expire at the end of next month. 

"States and local governments rely on the federal government to fund their surface transportation programs – some states depend on federal resources for 60, 70, 80, 90 percent," she said.  "Millions of American workers and thousands of businesses are relying on us to pass this transportation bill."  

Inhofe pitched his bill on Wednesday as a blueprint for ending the cycle of short-term transportation packages that has stretched since 2005, although he has said his is deferring to appropriators in the Senate on how the multiyear transportation bill should be financed. 

"A solution is urgent, because today we quite literally sit at a crossroads," he said. "In order to repair deficient bridges, eliminate waste, and reduce congestion, Congress must act now and pass a long-term surface infrastructure solution." 

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.