House panel approves $325B highway bill

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The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday approved a bipartisan bill to spend up to $325 billion on transportation projects over the next six years while Congress scrambles to prevent a loss of infrastructure spending at the end of the month. 

The measure, titled the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, 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.

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The committee pushed the process forward ahead of an Oct. 29 deadline for renewing federal transportation funding.  

Supporters of the measure said Thursday's committee vote is the first step toward Congress passing a long-term highway bill for the first time in 10 years. 

"The STRR Act is fiscally responsible and authorizes federal surface transportation programs for six years," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said at the start of Thursday's hearing.

Republicans in the House have been facing pressure to pass a multiyear highway bill since they rejected an infrastructure funding measure that was approved by Senate this summer. They balked at that bill, in part, because it contained six years' worth of transportation commitments but only three years' worth of funding. 

By contrast, the highway bill that was approved by the House Transportation Committee on Thursday would require lawmakers to pass new legislation to "unlock" additional funding after the initial three years, instead of guaranteeing it in advance.

Both chambers' highway bills would maintain the federal government's current spending level of about $50 billion per year for transportation projects, adjusted for inflation. To reach that level of spending, however, Congress will have to come up with approximately $16 billion per year to supplement revenue from the federal gas tax.  

Democrats in the House have pushed for an increase in federal infrastructure spending through either a gas tax increase or an infusion of cash from taxing oversees corporate profits. 

They lamented the flat levels of transportation funding in the House highway bill, even though it has been endorsed by the top Democrats on the Transportation Committee as the best possible solution.  

"America’s infrastructure is falling apart, and our country is falling behind our economic competitors. We won’t be able to catch up if we simply keep our inadequate infrastructure investment on cruise control,” said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who introduced a bill that calls for using revenue from corporate tax reform to pay for several years of roads and transit projects.  

“For years we have had a major funding deficit on infrastructure and the old politics and the old answers have failed us," said Delaney, whose bill would pump $170 billion into the Department of Transportation's Highway Trust Fund. "If we continue with baseline funding, in another six years we’ll be in even worse shape."

Republicans noted that Democratic leaders on the committee have endorsed the multi-year highway bill.

"This bill was developed with subcommittee Chairman [Sam] Graves [R-Mo.], ranking member [Peter] DeFazio [D-Ore.] and ranking member [Eleanor Holmes] Norton [D-D.C.], and includes input from both sides of the aisle and the stakeholder community," Shuster said. "I appreciate everyone’s efforts to get us to this point." 

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 federal government spends about $50 billion per year on roads, but the gas tax take only brings in $34 billion annually, however. 

Congress has turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the gap, and lawmakers on the Transportation Committee have said that the Ways and Means Committee will have to identify a set of offsets for the new highway bill before it can move forward. 

Transportation advocates complain 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. 

Lawmakers will likely have to pass another patch to give Congress time to conference on the highway bill because of the approaching Oct. 29 deadline. 

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.