Heritage Foundation pans $325B House highway bill

Heritage Foundation pans $325B House highway bill
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The Heritage Foundation is panning a new bipartisan $325 billion highway bill that was approved by the House Transportation Committee on Thursday, saying the proposed six-year measure is "another status-quo bailout.”

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the measure to spend up to $325 billion on transportation projects over the next six years as 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 (STRR), 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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Heritage Foundation research associate Michael Sargent said he is opposed to the measure because it is a "another status-quo bailout that perpetuates the chronic overspending and misallocation of resources spent out of the Highway Trust Fund.

"Those who expected the 'reform' part of STRR to be the emphasis will not find much to like in the legislation," Sargent wrote in a blog post on the Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal website. 

"The bill, which totals $325 billion in spending, keeps current funding levels in place (adjusted for inflation) while completely disregarding the annual deficit of about $15 billion expected over the next six years," he continued. 

Lawmakers are facing a Oct. 29 deadline for the expiration of current infrastructure funding. Congress has been struggling for years to come up with a way to pay for a long-term extension, and they are likely to have to settle now for another temporary patch to prevent a transportation funding shutdown at month's end. 

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. 

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 Heritage Foundation's Sargaent said Congress would be better off leaving transportation funding decisions to states and focusing on just a handful of projects that are "truly national in scope and are federal priorities," however. 

"STRR expands funding for bridges that are not part of the national highway system and thus should be taken care of by states and localities," he wrote. "Rather than continue bailing out a broken system, congress should give itself the opportunity to enact real reforms that put states in the driver’s seat and focus the federal role on projects of true national significance." 

Transportation advocates have resisted proposals from conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation to eliminate the federal gas tax, which are usually referred to as "devolution," arguing that the federal government is best suited to handle transportation infrastructure that runs between states, like highways.

"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 Committe Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during Thursday's markup of the multiyear highway bill. 

"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," Shuster continued.  

The Congressional Budget Office 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.