Transportation deadlines greet returning Congress

Transportation deadlines greet returning Congress

Congress is returning to Washington on Tuesday to face a pair of looming transportation deadlines that have bedeviled lawmakers for most of the year. 

Federal funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and road and transit programs are set to expire on Sept. 30 and Oct. 29, respectively. 

Lawmakers had hoped to have finished work on a multiyear highway bill earlier this summer, but gridlock between the House and Senate left the issue unresolved for the fall. 

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Now Congress will have tackle highway funding during a month when they expected to be dealing with aviation spending. Both issues will likely have to take a back seat to congressional debate about the Iran nuclear deal and the Pope's visit to Washington this month, raising the possibility of temporary extensions for both highways and aviation. 

Republicans in the House have promised to at least try to find the money to pay for a long-term bill this fall after rejecting a three-year measure that was approved by the Senate in July. 

"The Senate’s work on their transportation bill is a positive step, but the House also needs to make its voice heard and put forth its own priorities for such a significant piece of legislation," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement when the House was passing a temporary highway funding extension instead of the Senate's multi-year bill. 

The pressure will be on House Republicans because the Senate approved their multiyear transportation bill with more than 60 votes in July.

GOP leaders in the House complained that the Senate highway bill was not fully paid for because it included six years worth of authorizations, but only three years worth of guaranteed funding. 

The House has not said how they will pay for the extra three years, but Republican leaders in the House have expressed a preference for a process known as "repatriation," which would tax corporate profits being held overseas.

Transportation advocates have pushed for an increase in the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax to help pay for the nation's infrastructure projects, but lawmakers in both chambers have ruled out a tax hike. 

The gas tax has been the main source for infrastructure spending since the 1930’s. The tax has not been increased since 1993, and it has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses in recent years as cars have become more fuel efficient. 

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

The $8 billion stopgap measure that was passed in July was intended to address at least part of the $16 billion annual shortfall. The measure is expected to provide enough funding to cover transportation projects until the end of the year in case Congress needs extra time. 

Transportation advocates have said lawmakers should begin working on solving that shortfall as soon as they return to Washington. 

"The passage of a long-term, six-year Highway Bill by the U.S. Senate shows that bipartisanship and putting America’s interest ahead of politics is still possible,"  Laborers’ International Union of North America President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement when the upper chamber approved its multiyear highway bill. 

"Now is the time for the U.S. House of Representatives to move forward on their vision for a long-term bill without further delaying tactics and short-term extensions," O'Sullivan continued. "Congress must put politics aside and work together to make the crucial investment that our nation’s infrastructure so desperately needs." 

The aviation industry is facing its own turbulent environment in Washington as its funding deadline approaches more quickly than the highway cutoff. 

The aviation deadline has flown under the radar for most of the year as lawmakers have focused on highways, but the FAA bill, which includes funding for air traffic controllers, is scheduled to expire Sept. 30. 

The FAA has been at the center of budget battles in Washington before. The agency’s last funding measure, in 2012, was passed following a string of more than 20 temporary extensions that resulted in a partial shutdown of the agency in 2011. 

The FAA’s funding was also cut in the 2013 sequester, resulting in air traffic controller furloughs and flight delays, before Congress passed a quick fix to restore the spending. 

Aviation industry groups in Washington are focused now on avoiding those kinds of standoffs, even if they have to accept at least one more temporary extension while Congress finishes off the highway bill. 

“Both the House and Senate understand how critical aviation is to the economy and jobs, and we are committed to working collaboratively with Congress to deliver an FAA bill that our industry needs and our customers deserve,” the group that lobbies for airlines, Airlines for America, said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.