By Keith Laing - 10/23/15 06:00 AM EDT
Congress has less than a week to prevent a highway-funding shutdown, with federal transportation spending currently set to expire on Oct. 29.
Lawmakers are scrambling to pass at least an extension of transportation funding by next Thursday to prevent an interruption.
The Department of Transportation has warned that it will have to stop making payments to states and local governments for infrastructure projects in November if Congress does not reach an agreement.
But that approach differs from a six-year bill approved by the Senate over the summer. House lawmakers had rejected the Senate bill, which authorizes funding for six years but only pays for three years of spending.
Lawmakers are expected to pass a temporary extension of the federal highway funding, much to the chagrin of transportation advocates who have complained that it has been 10 years since Congress has passed an infrastructure bill that lasts longer than two years.
"We’re facing another short-term extension – and this would be the 35th – and providing zero assurance or long-term certainty to local governments," said Rep. Earl Bumenauer (D-Ore.), who has introduced legislation to increase the federal gas tax.
Bumenauer said highway bill that was marked up by the House Transportation Committee on Thursday "raises more questions than it answers" because Congress has not come up with a way to pay for any of the spending beyond the first three years.
"Even if the House were to embrace it unanimously, we would still be where we were three months ago, six months ago, and so many times before that," he said, arguing that only a gas tax hike can solve the transportation funding problem.
Supporters of the multiyear highway funding measure that was approved by the House Transportation Committee on Thursday pointed to the legislation as evidence of Congress' commitment to passing a long-term infrastructure bill, even as they admitted another temporary extension is likely before lawmakers can work out a bicameral agreement on a longer highway bill.
"A safe, efficient network of roads, bridges, and public transit means that we spend less time in traffic, transportation costs for goods and services remain lower, and more jobs are created throughout the economy," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during a hearing on Thursday.
"That’s what this bill does in a way that I believe ensures a strong and appropriate federal role in surface transportation, enables our country to remain competitive, and improves Americans’ quality of life," he continued.
Blumenauer said he is a lot less optimistic than Shuster is about the future of federal transportation funding, even if the House's multiyear bill eventually becomes law.
"This legislation calls for a six-year period of reauthorization, and even claims to be funded for three years, but it doesn’t actually provide a single dime of revenue to the Highway Trust Fund. It’s a shell," he said.
"We can have markups and even pass a reauthorization shell on the floor of the House, but until we embrace [a gas tax hike] and raise the gas tax, finding revenue that is sustainable, dedicated, and big enough to do the job, we’re still going to keep spinning our wheels and America will be stuck,” Blumenauer continued.
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 multiyear highway bill before it can move forward.
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.