Advocates exhale after passage of 'monumental' highway bill

Advocates exhale after passage of 'monumental' highway bill

Transportation advocates are exhaling after the passage of a five-year, $305 billion highway bill that they have been seeking for years.

The 1,300-page bill, paid for with gas tax revenue and a package of $70 billion in offsets from other areas of the federal budget, is the first multiyear highway funding measure approved by lawmakers in a decade. It was approved by the Senate in an 83-16 tally, hours after sailing through the House on a 359-65 vote.

ADVERTISEMENT
The bill calls for spending approximately $205 billion on highways and $48 billion on transit projects over the next five years. It also reauthorizes the charter of the controversial Export-Import Bank until 2019.

Transportation advocates applauded lawmakers for the strong bipartisan votes in favor of the bill, which came with just one day to spare before the scheduled expiration of the nation's road and transit spending.

"After so many near misses and close calls, so many cans kicked down the road and so many cliffs narrowly averted, we finally have long-term, fully funded highway legislation," Associated Equipment Distributors President Brian McGuire said in a statement about the measure, which is known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. 

"The FAST Act is the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of effort by AED and its industry allies," McGuire continued. 

"This is more than a philosophical victory," he said. "Equipment dealers, manufacturers and their customers can now once again plan for the future. Over the next five years, the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal highway and transit investment guaranteed in the bill will stimulate more than $13 billion in equipment sales, rental and maintenance activity and support more than 4,000 dealership jobs each year." 

Congress has not passed a transportation funding bill that lasted longer than two years since 2005, much to the chagrin of infrastructure advocates in Washington.  

The new bill formally reauthorizes the collection of the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax, which is typically used to pay for transportation projects, and also includes $70 billion in “pay-fors” to close a $16 billion deficit in annual transportation funding that has developed as U.S. cars have become more fuel-efficient. 

The gas tax has been the traditional source for transportation funding since its inception in the 1930s, but lawmakers have resisted increasing the amount that drivers pay. The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects; the gas tax only brings in $34 billion annually. 

Congress has been struggling for years to come up with a way to pay for a long-term transportation funding extension without raising the gas tax. The offsets in the agreement that was announced on Tuesday include changes to custom fees and passport rules for applicants who have delinquent taxes. 

Additional mechanisms include contracting out some tax collection services to private companies — over the objection of unions that represent federal IRS workers — and tapping dividends from the Federal Reserve Bank.

Lawmakers who worked on the multiyear highway bill hailed the votes to approve the measure as a "historic" legislative victory.

"We couldn't be more proud of the overwhelming vote today, because this legislation is essential for jobs, for our safety by rebuilding our roads and bridges, and for our economic standing in the world," Sens. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeFive takeaways on the canceled Trump summit with Kim Senate panel unanimously approves water infrastructure bill Defense bill moves forward with lawmakers thinking about McCain MORE (R-Okla.) and Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerThe ‘bang for the buck’ theory fueling Trump’s infrastructure plan Kamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response MORE (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement. 

"We applaud our many colleagues who worked tirelessly alongside our committee through long hours and many negotiations to make this accomplishment happen," the senators continued. "The FAST Act has enormous support throughout the country from businesses and workers alike, and we are so pleased that it is now going to the President to be signed into law.”

Conservative groups were far less enthusiastic about the transportation funding bill, however, criticizing lawmakers for relying so heavily on transfers from other areas of the federal budget to pay for infrastructure projects. 

"While there has been much bipartisan fanfare regarding this 'long-term' bill, the proposal is fiscally irresponsible and was dubiously crafted," Heritage Foundation research associate Michael Sargent wrote in a blog post on the group's website. 

"The bill does not include any meaningful reforms to address the structural problems in highway funding, while making many of the problems worse by increasing spending out of the deeply troubled Highway Trust Fund that has already required $73 billion in bailouts since 2008," Sargent continued. "FAST should be regarded as yet another bailout of the Highway Trust Fund that would leave federal highway financing even worse off when the bill’s money runs out." 

Transportation advocates were more focused on the fact that the highway bill guarantees five years of infrastructure funding for state and local governments after a string of temporary patches that topped 30. 

"Today is a monumental day for the U.S. Congress, working Americans and the entire equipment manufacturing industry," Association of Equipment Manufacturers President Dennis Slater said in a statement released shortly after the final vote on Thursday night. 

"The FAST Act will offer five years of stability to our nation's surface transportation programs while steadily increasing infrastructure investment," Slater continued. "This certainty extends to both the equipment manufacturing industry and the entire economy. The FAST Act means faster and safer infrastructure, economic growth and more prosperity." 

President Obama is expected to quickly sign the highway funding measure on Friday to prevent an interruption in the nation's transportation spending.