Senate schedules hearing on six-year highway bill

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The Senate is planning to hold a markup hearing on a six-year transportation funding bill, but not until after the pending May 31 deadline for extending the current infrastructure spending measure. 

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calf.), the top ranking Democrat on the panel, said it is important to get the policy in place regarding funding improvements to the nation’s infrastructure while lawmakers on other committees are hashing out the way to pay for a short-term extension to beat the deadline. 

“We are quickly approaching a critical deadline for federal investment in our nation’s roads and bridges,” the senators said in a joint statement.  

{mosads}“Without Congressional action by May 31, vital projects across the nation will come to a grinding halt,” they continued. “This is unacceptable, and we owe it to our nation’s economy to send a strong signal that Congress is going to maintain the backbone of America’s commerce and national security.” 

Inhofe and Boxer have marked up a long-term transportation bill before, when Boxer was holding the Public Works Committee gavel in 2014. The measure then would have spent $265 billion on transportation projects over the next six years, but it fizzled because Congress never came up with a plan to pay for it. 

Lawmakers instead adopted a nearly $11 billion bill to extend the transportation funding measure that was expiring at the time for another eight months. The clock is now running out on that extension, and lawmakers are again struggling to come up with a way to pay for a continuation of the federal government’s road and transit spending. 

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed a desire to pass an extension of the infrastructure bill, but consensus on how it should be paid for and how long it should last has been elusive.  

The traditional source of transportation funding has been revenue from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax since its inception in the 1930s. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and has struggled to keep pace with construction costs as U.S. cars have become more fuel-efficient. 

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

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the gap, but transportation advocates have complained the resulting temporary patches are preventing states from undertaking badly needed large construction projects. 

Transportation advocates have pushed Congress to increase the tax for the first time in two decades to pay for a long-term infrastructure funding extension, but lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump. 

Inhofe and Boxer said Wednesday they cannot afford to wait for the debate about the funding mechanism to be settled to start working on a long-term transportation measure that they said is badly overdue. 

“While Congress continues to debate the funding mechanisms, we believe it is in the best interest that this committee moves forward with consideration of a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill,” they said. “This is why we are announcing that the EPW committee intends to mark up a six-year, bipartisan reauthorization bill in June. We can no longer wait on Congress. We look forward to finalizing negotiations with the big four, to include Sens. David Vitter and Tom Carper, and working with our members on a consensus bill in the tradition of this committee in the next few weeks.”

The Department of Transportation has said its Highway Trust Fund will have to stop making payments to state governments for construction projects that are already underway if Congress does not come to an agreement on an extension in the next couple of weeks.

Tags Barbara Boxer Gas Tax Highway bill Highway Trust Fund MAP-21 Reauthorization
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