House to markup six-year, $325B highway bill

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is set to markup a bipartisan bill to spend up to $325 billion on transportation projects over the next six years on Thursday, as Congress scrambles to prevent an interruption in the nation's infrastructure spending at the end of the month. 

The measure would spend $261 billion on highways, $55 billion on transit and approximately $9 billion on safety programs, but only if Congress can come up with a way to pay for the final three years. The bill is known as the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015. 

Supporters of the measure touted the decision to mark the bill up before House appropriators come up with a funding mechanism as way to speed up the process of passing a long-term highway bill for the first time in 10 years by getting the policy provisions in place. 

“This is a bill that improves our roads, bridges, and transportation system, as well as our economy, our competitiveness, and our everyday lives,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement. 

“The legislation streamlines, consolidates, and reforms transportation programs and offices, gives states and local governments more control in addressing their needs, refocuses on national transportation priorities, facilitates the flow of freight and commerce, and promotes innovation as we improve our infrastructure for the future," Shuster continued. "The more efficient our surface transportation system is, the less time we spend in traffic, the lower the transportation costs for goods and services, and the more jobs that are created throughout the economy.”

Democrats on the panel had hoped for an increase in federal infrastructure spending, but they said they are glad lawmakers are finally discussing a multiyear extension of federal highway funding that has been subject to temporary patches for years. 

"After several months of negotiations, I am pleased we are introducing today the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top ranking Democrat on the panel, said.

"Unfortunately, this bill doesn’t provide the level of investment needed to rebuild or repair our crumbling roads, bridges, highways and transit systems," DeFazio continued. "However, it includes a critical provision that would allow for automatic adjustments and increased investments if more money flows into the Highway Trust Fund than expected. This is a step in the right direction.”  

The first three years of the infrastructure spending under the measure would be guaranteed, while the remaining three years would be authorized pending additional funding from congressional appropriators, according to the House aides.

The current transportation funding measure is scheduled to expire on Oct. 29. Congress has been struggling for years to come up with a way to pay for a long-term extension. 

The traditional source for transportation funding is revenue collected by the federal gas tax, which is currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon. The gas tax brings about $34 billion per year, but the federal government typically spends about $50 billion annually on transportation projects.

Congress has turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the gap, and House aides in both parties have said that the chamber's Ways and Means Committee will have to identify a set of offsets for the new highway bill before it can move forward. 

Transportation advocates have complained that Congress has not passed an infrastructure measure that lasts longer than two years since 2005.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated it will take about $100 billion, in addition to the annual gas tax revenue, to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill, which is the length being sought by the Obama administration and transportation supporters. 

Congress is scrambling to beat the Oct. 29 deadline that was set by lawmakers in a temporary transportation funding extension that was passed in July. 

Republican and Democratic party aides in the House have said that another patch will likely be necessary to give Congress time to conference on the highway bill. 

Democrats in the Senate have pressured House Republicans to pass a six-year highway bill after they rejected a multi-year highway bill from Senate known as the DRIVE Act during the summer. Republicans in the House complained that the Senate's bill contained six years' worth of transportation commitments but only three years' worth of guaranteed funding.

By contrast, House aides say their chamber's measure would require lawmakers to "unlock" the additional round of funding after the initial three years if lawmakers can come up with a way to pay for it instead of guaranteeing it to states now. 

Transportation advocates have pushed for a gas tax increase to help make up the shortfall, but Republicans and some Democrats have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump

The Department of Transportation has warned that it will have to begin cutting back on payments to states and local governments for infrastructure projects in November if Congress does not reach an agreement on a highway bill extension this month. 

The text and summary of the House transportation bill can be read here