GOP senator: Short-term highway bill 'very likely'

GOP senator: Short-term highway bill 'very likely'
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Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerAustin, Milley to testify on Afghanistan withdrawal After messy Afghanistan withdrawal, questions remain House Democrats press leaders to include more funding for electric vehicles in spending plan MORE (R-Neb) said Tuesday that a short-term extension of federal transportation funding is "very likely."

The current transportation funding measure is scheduled to expire on May 31. 

Transportation advocates have pushed for a long-term extension of the measure, but Fischer said Tuesday that lawmakers will likely have to settle for a temporary patch to prevent an interruption in the infrastructure spending. 

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"As many of you here know, at the end of this month, authorization for surface transportation programs will expire. A short-term extension is highly likely," she said at the start of a Senate hearing on the looming deadline.

"According to the latest projections, by August, the highway trust fund will run out of money," Fischer continued. "The time for action is now." 

Fischer is chairwoman of the Senate Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee. The panel is meeting Tuesday to discuss the looming transportation funding deadline. 

The hearings comes against a backdrop of an announcement from Department of Transportation that it will have to begin cutting back on payments to state governments for construction projects that are already underway in late July or early August if Congress does not reach a deal to extend the infrastructure funding. 

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed a desire to prevent such an interruption in the road and transit spending, but they have been struggling to come up with a way to pay for an extension.

The traditional source of transportation funding has been revenue that is collected by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and its buying power has been sapped by improvements in car fuel efficiency in recent years. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in $34 billion. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the $16 billion gap in infrastructure funding in recent years, but transportation advocates have complained the temporary patches are making it too difficult for state and local governments to plan long-term construction projects. 

Transportation advocates have suggested that raising the tax or at least indexing it to inflation would be the easiest way to close the infrastructure funding shortfall, but lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump. 

Fischer said Tuesday that is was important that lawmakers first prevent an interruption in the federal government's transportation spending. 

"States and local governments need more tools at their disposal to address the growing challenge of sustaining local infrastructure and transportation systems," she said.

"The nation’s economy depends on an efficient and reliable transportation network," she continued. 

Fischer's panel is scheduled to hear testimony from members of the National Council of State Legislatures, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey State League of Municipalities and Association of Equipment Manufacturers.