House approves five-year, $305B highway bill

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The House overwhelmingly approved a five-year, $305 billion highway bill Thursday, advancing the first long-term national transportation spending package in a decade and cementing an early legislative achievement in the Speaker Paul Ryan era.

The 359 – 65 vote comes one day before federal infrastructure funding runs out, and sets up a likely Senate vote to pass the measure before Friday’s deadline. All dissenting votes were cast by Republican lawmakers.

The White House has said that President Obama is planning to sign the bill.

“If passed, this legislation would be a real step forward for our transportation infrastructure after years of short-term patches,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters during a press briefing on Wednesday.

“We’ve talked a lot about the need that state and local authorities have for some certainty,” Earnest continued. “Infrastructure projects often — at least the most impactful ones — often will take years to build, and if the federal government is providing funding at increments of a few months at a time, it’s going to undermine their ability to effectively plan for the long term.”

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, calls for spending approximately $205 billion on highways and $48 billion on transit projects over the next five years. It also reauthorizes the controversial Export-Import Bank’s expired charter until 2019.

Dubbed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act, the bill formally reauthorizes the collection of the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax that is typically used to pay for transportation projects. The $70 billion “pay-fors” would 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 at the pump. 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 customs 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.

Conservative groups panned the reliance on transfers from other areas of the federal budget to finance the highway bill.

“This deal enables more deficit spending out of the Highway Trust Fund without any real reform,” Heritage Foundation transportation policy expert Michael Sargent said in a statement, pointing out that the deal increases the federal government’s annual spending on highway and transit programs.

“Lawmakers are fueling new spending by relying on budget gimmicks and unrelated tax increases,” Sargent continued.

Lawmakers who worked on the highway bill defended the compromise as an important step forward in an area of badly divided government.

“We have something that’s very rare in Washington, D.C. these days here on the floor of the House: a truly bipartisan approach to very real problems confronting our nation,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

For members who’ve struggled for years to find agreement on anything beyond a temporary highway funding patch, Thursday’s vote was a long time coming.

“Since I became chairman, one of my top priorities has been to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the son of the former panel chairman Bud Shuster.

If enacted, the package would reflect the first transportation funding legislation to last longer than two years since 2005.

Obama has railed against short-term transportation funding bills during his tenure in office, but he has signed dozens of patches to prevent interruptions in the nation’s road and transit funding, including recent measures that lasted two and three weeks.

Earnest said Wednesday that Congress “putting forward something like a five-year proposal is obviously an important step in the right direction.”

He added that the Obama administration “has put forward a transportation funding bill that actually is substantially larger,” noting that Obama proposed a six-year, $478 billion highway bill earlier this year.

“So we would actually view this legislation as a step in the right direction, but only a first step because we believe that there are more infrastructure projects that are worthy of funding that would create jobs in the short-term and lay a long-term foundation for our ongoing economic strength over the long-term,” he said. “We’ll see what Congress chooses to do from here.”

Transportation advocates, meanwhile, praised lawmakers for hashing out a compromise on the multiyear highway funding legislation for the first time in a decade.

“It’s full speed ahead on FAST. This legislation addresses critical issues in the public transportation industry that have been neglected for decades,” says Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley said in a statement ahead of Thursday’s vote. “We commend the leadership on both sides of the aisle who finally put aside partisan politics to produce the best transit bill since TEA-21 in 1998.”

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