Advocates cheer Senate highway deal

Advocates cheer Senate highway deal

Transportation advocates are cheering an emerging Senate deal on a multi-year extension of federal infrastructure spending that is currently set to expire at the end of the month. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) announced an agreement on Tuesday afternoon on a "multi-year, bipartisan highway bill" that they said would provide "three years of guaranteed funding for the highway trust fund."

American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARBTA) President Peter Ruane said the Senate deal would provide certainty to state and local governments about the availablity of federal dollars to help pay for construction projects that has been lacking as Congress has passed more than 30 temporary extensions. 

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"While the Highway Trust Fund's structural revenue deficit remains, the construct of the bipartisan legislation proposed by the leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW} and Finance Committees would provide three years of guaranteed funding predictability," Ruane wrote in a letter to senators after the deal was announced on Tuesday.

"The measure would also aid states in long-term planning by distributing six years of contract authority, which also provides Congress the additional time some claim is still needed to develop a permanent solution to stabilize and grow Highway Trust Fund revenue," he continued. "After six Highway Trust Fund revenue shortfalls in the last eight years, Congress now has a chance to deliver three-years of reliable highway and public transportation investments and provide states a six­ year reauthorization plan with common sense policy reforms." 

U.S. Travel Association Preident Roger Dow agreed, saying the agreement is an important development because the deterioration of the nation's roads and bridges is negatively impacting tourism.

"America's aging roads and bridges are at a critical junction," Dow said in a statement. "Travelers see and experience it daily, slowed by record congestion and bumper-to-bumper conditions that will soon resemble holiday traffic levels absent solutions." 

Lawmakers are facing a July 31 deadline for the expiration of current infrastructure funding, and the upper chamber is scrambling to put together enough money to pay for an extension to keep the dollars flowing beyond month's end. 

McConnell and Boxer has said they have been negotiating on a potential package of payment methods that could be used to fund a multi-year transportation bill. 

The lawmakers framed their emerging agreement as the most politically viable option for a multi-year transportation funding bill in the current congressional climate.  

"This is a six-year highway authorization that will allow planning for important long-term projects around the country, and the bill provides three years of guaranteed funding for the highway trust fund," McConnell said in a statement announcing the agreement.

“Senators from both parties know that a long-term highway bill is in the best interest of our country," McConnell continued. "So we’ll continue working together to get a good one passed." 

Dow said Tuesday that he will "keep an eye towards how this bill is funded," but he added that he is "pleased that the Senate Environment and Public Works, Finance, Commerce, Science and Transportation, as well as the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committees are moving a multi-year bill forward."  

The Senate is planning hold a procedural vote to begin debate on the long-term highway bill agreement on Tuesday afternoon. The vote, which comes just 10 days before the July 31 deadline for replenishing the Highway Trust Fund, is seen as a big deal because Congress has passed a series of 34 temporary extensions since a 2005 measure expired in 2009.  

The Senate is planning hold a procedural vote to begin debate on the long-term highway bill agreement on Tuesday afternoon. The vote, which comes just 10 days before the July 31 deadline for replenishing the Highway Trust Fund, is seen as a big deal because Congress has passed a series of 34 temporary extensions since a 2005 measure expired in 2009.  

Congress has been grappling since 2005 with a transportation funding shortfall that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year. 

The 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax has been the main source of transportation funding for decades, but the tax has not been increased since 1993 and more fuel-efficient cars have sapped its buying power. The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in approximately $34 billion annually.

Transportation advocates have pushed for a gas tax increase to pay for a long-term transportation bill, but McConnell and other Republican leaders have ruled out a tax hike.

Congressional budget scorekeepers have estimated it will take about $100 billion, in addition to the gas tax revenue, to pay for a six-year transportation bill.

Senators had been rumored to be looking at a package of roughly $80 billion in offsets to supplement the gas tax revenue, although it would only take about $48 billion to close the gap enough to cover three years worth of funding. 

The list of rumored potential pay-fors includes revenue from changes to federal pensions and sales of oil that is currently stored in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). 

The House, meanwhile, has passed smaller package of $8 billion that relies on $3 billion worth of savings from Transportation Security Administration fees and $5 billion in tax compliance measures to fund road projects through Dec. 18 that has been passed by the House.

This story was updated with information at 2:53 p.m.