Democrats are calling for an increase in the federal government's annual spending for infrastructure projects in House and Senate negotiations on a new highway bill, even if it results in a shorter overall road funding package.
Lawmakers are working on a multiyear highway bill that would authorize six years of federal transportation funding, although lawmakers have only cobbled together enough money to pay for three of them so far.
Democrats are coalescing around the idea of shortening the length of the highway bill to stretch the transportation dollars further on an annual basis as the committee that was set up to negotiate on a potential bicameral highway bill agreement is beginning to meet publicly to conducts talks on the measure.
"Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation contain numerous policy reforms that will help to address America’s infrastructure challenges," the senators continued. "However, no set of policy reforms can substitute for what is truly needed to make significant progress toward rebuilding and modernizing our nation’s infrastructure: funding."
Lawmakers are working to hash out a bicameral agreement on the highway bill after the chambers passed disparate measures that each contained three years of guaranteed road and transit funding. The highway bill that was approved by the House on Thursday calls for spending $261 billion on highways and $55 billion on transit over six years. The legislation authorizes highway funding for six years, but only if Congress can come up with a way to pay for the final three years.
The Senate similarly passed a bill that contains three years' worth of transportation funding, with an three extra conditional years, in July.
Lawmakers are expected to try to meld the measures quickly to beat a new Dec. 4 deadline for renewing federal infrastructure spending.
Democrats, including several who on the conference committee that met for the first time in public on Wednesday, are increasingly calling for the highway bill to be shortened to maximize the investment in the nation's roads and transit projects.
"The nation needs $400 billion over the next six years to maintain our infrastructure’s status quo. The House bill authorizes $325 billion," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said.
"By making this a five-year, not a six-year, bill, we could at least make up for the status quo shortfall," she continued. "Although a shorter bill is not ideal, it is better than allowing our infrastructure to fall into further disrepair and being forced to later make up for the shortfall to the Highway Trust Fund through general revenue."
Infrastructure advocates in Washington have made clear they can get behind a shorter highway funding measure that boosts annual funding.
"The goal of the conference committee should be to produce final legislation that confronts the nation’s surface transportation challenges with policy reforms and increased federal investment levels," a group of 40 transportation groups and unions wrote in a letter last week to Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
"To that end, a reauthorization bill of less than six years duration with significant highway and public transportation investment increases is far superior to a six-year bill with status quo funding levels," the letter continued. "While the reliability of future federal highway and public transportation funds is a critical benefit of a multi-year reauthorization bill, such predictability alone is not sufficient to drive needed surface transportation improvements."
The transportation groups said that neither chamber's version of the measure provides enough of an increase in annual infrastructure spending to meet the nation's road and transit needs.
"Holding highway and public transportation investment at or below purchasing power levels will not create job growth, reduce traffic congestion, or address the nation’s backlog of needed surface transportation infrastructure improvements," the groups wrote.
"We urge you to ensure any surface transportation conference report seeks to maximize the benefits it would provide as opposed to the number of years it would last," the letter concluded.