Congress has five days to prevent a highway funding shutdown

Congress has five days to prevent a highway funding shutdown
© Greg Nash

Congress has less than a week to prevent a highway-funding shutdown, with federal transportation spending currently set to expire on Friday. 

Lawmakers are hoping to reach a bicameral agreement on a multiyear transportation funding bill this week to prevent an interruption in the nation's road and transit spending on Nov. 20.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has warned that it will have to stop making payments to states and local governments for infrastructure projects soon if Congress does not reach an agreement.

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Lawmakers in the House have approved a bipartisan bill to spend up to $325 billion on transportation projects over the next six years. 

But that approach differs from a six-year bill approved by the Senate over the summer. House lawmakers had rejected the Senate bill, which authorizes funding for six years but only pays for three years of spending.

Lawmakers have sounded optimistic about their ability to meld the two measures, but transportation advocates are wary because it has been 10 years since Congress passed an infrastructure bill that lasts longer than two years.

"Congress still has not developed a highway/public transportation bill that would improve overall system conditions or safety, reduce traffic congestion, or create new jobs," the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARBTA) and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) said in an ad that is running this week in Capitol Hill newspapers. 

The House and Senate have appointed conferees who are working to hash out an agreement on the chamber's disparate highway funding measures. 

Transportation Committee leaders in both chambers have expressed optimism that they will be able to reach an agreement in time to get a highway funding bill to President Obama's desk before the scheduled interruption in federal road funding. 

"Both the Senate and the House bills have many similarities that will allow for a very short conference period," Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement while the House was finishing work on its version of the highway bill.

"With this milestone, Congress should be able to send a bill to the president’s desk by Thanksgiving," he continued. "This will allow for our nation to avoid the Highway Trust Fund hitting a dangerously low level, which DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx warned would significantly affect the 2016 construction season.” 

The highway bill that was approved by the House calls for spending up to $261 billion on highways and $55 billion on transit over six years. The legislation authorizes highway funding for six years but only includes enough money to pay for the first three of them. 

The Senate passed a similar piece of legislation that also contained three years' worth of guaranteed highway funding in July. 

Critics have complained that the potential highway funding agreement is not fully funded for six years and does not increase the federal government's annual funding for road and transit projects. 

"When adjusted for anticipated inflation, the total revenue that has been identified to fund the proposed six-year House and Senate DRIVE Act bills now in conference won’t really move the needle on almost any metric," the road builders and transit group continued in their ad.  

"And if material prices increase more than consumer prices, conditions and performance on our national highway and public transportation systems will be worse in 2022," the ad continued. 

Industry groups like ARTBA and APTA are pushing lawmakers to boost the federal government's annual spending for infrastructure projects in the new highway bill, even if it results in a shorter road funding package. 

"The goal of the Conference Committee should be to produce legislation that confronts the nation’s surface transportation challenges with policy reforms and increased federal investment that helps address them," the groups wrote. "To that end, a reauthorization of less than six years duration with significant, after inflation annual highway and public transit investment increases is far superior to a six-year bill with 'status quo' funding levels. 

"While reliability of future funding is a critical benefit of a multi-year reauthorization, such predictability alone will not address the nation’s backlog of needed transportation infrastructure improvements, reduce traffic congestion, help move freight, provide mobility options, grow communities, or create new jobs," they continued. "Just getting over the goal line with a six-year bill would not be a victory for your constituents or improve America’s global competitiveness." 

Congress has been struggling for years to come up with a way to pay for a long-term extension. The traditional source for transportation funding is revenue collected by the federal gas tax, which is currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon. The federal government spends about $50 billion per year on roads, but the gas tax take only brings in $34 billion annually, however. 

Congress has turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the gap, but transportation groups have complained about the resulting short-term highway bills that they argue are weakening the ability of states to tackle large construction projects. 

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion, in addition to the annual gas tax revenue, to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill.