GOP Senator floats new highway funding bill

A rural Republican senator is floating a new idea to pay for federal highway aid and boost other transportation projects around the country.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), chairwoman of Senate’s surface transportation subcommittee, unveiled legislation this week that would temporarily take freight cargo and passenger revenue from Customs and Border Patrol and funnel it towards the ailing Highway Trust Fund.

The fund is financed by the federal gasoline tax and pays for road construction, maintenance and other transportation projects throughout the nation. By 2026, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the fund will be facing a $107 billion funding gap.

{mosads}But President Trump, who has vowed to move a massive infrastructure package through Congress, hasn’t signaled whether he plans to address highway funding in his infrastructure bill. So far, Trump has shown a strong preference for private funding tools that may benefit urban areas over rural regions.

“Funding challenges and the burdensome federal regulatory approval process have delayed infrastructure projects across America for decades,” Fischer said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

Her Build USA Infrastructure Act would divert $21.4 billion annually for five years in order to plug the projected money shortfalls in the fund.

Lawmakers passed a five-year highway bill funding highway coffers in December 2015, but the financing came through a series of budgetary gimmicks.

Even Fischer’s bill would only serve as a temporary solution, underscoring the challenge for lawmakers in coming up with long-term funding solutions.

The legislation also aims to get transportation projects off the ground quicker by allowing states to exchange some of their federal highway funding for greater regulatory control over how transportation projects are approved under federal standards. Ten percent of the money that states remit would then go to the trust fund.

“The Build USA Infrastructure Act is a responsible, forward-looking proposal to strengthen roads, bridges, and highways for the benefit of the American families and workers who use them every day,” Fischer said.

Trump will likely need the support of rural Republicans to pass his infrastructure bill, especially if fiscal conservatives prove reluctant to back massive federal spending on transportation.

But the proposal he has floated on the campaign trail would offer federal tax credits to private investors, which would likely favor urban and high-traffic areas that can recoup their investment costs through a revenue stream.

Rural GOP senators raised those concerns during Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s confirmation hearing last month. And Business leaders and organized labor called for Trump’s infrastructure proposal to include a sustainable funding source for the highway trust fund in a House hearing on Wednesday.

While the White House is expected to be in the lead on an infrastructure bill, GOP lawmakers overseeing he nation’s transportation programs will likely have a major role in shaping the package.

“We’re going to be working with the administration very closely. They can shape things downtown at the White House, but it’s got to come up here to pass,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters on Wednesday. “We have a significant role in that. We already started to talk to them about the various issues.”

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