A $10.8 billion bill to boost the Highway Trust Fund through May passed the House and Senate on July 31, shortly before lawmakers left Washington for a five-week recess.
The Republican-led House passed the bill in a 272-150 vote. The Senate followed a few hours later, voting 81-13 to send the bill to the president’s desk for his signature.
If enacted into law, the bill would avert a shortfall of the federal highway account and prevent the Department of Transportation from delaying payouts to states for large-scale highway projects.
The bill relies largely on a pension-smoothing accounting technique to raise revenue for the account. Earlier this week, senators scaled back the smoothing provision, which allows companies to lower legally required payments into their employee retirement programs temporarily, boosting a company’s taxable income.
Also, a multitude of Democrats had urged GOP leaders to authorize funds through mid-December as a way to force lawmakers to approve a multiyear bill. But the House approved a motion to disagree with the Senate's version.
“The House, to my disappointment — not to my surprise, but to my disappointment, said, no, no, we’re going to strip off what the Senate has done,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee.
“It’s really sad because what we wanted to do is to take care of this problem this year in this Congress,” added Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chamber’s top transportation official.
“We’re disappointed that Congress has kicked the can further down the road when it comes to investing in our highway system. Despite the May deadline, we hope the House and Senate will act this year to provide sufficient funding for a robust, long-term highway bill,” said Sean McNally, vice president of public affairs and press secretary at American Trucking Associations.
Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, praised Congress’ votes.
“More than 660,000 jobs and at least 6,000 state DOT construction projects were at risk had Congress failed to act in time to ensure the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. But while this short-term patch is an important step, Congress must keep America working and the economy moving forward by passing a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill that is supported by a sustainable source of funding as soon as possible,“ Wright said in a statement.
The trust fund's construction account is projected to run out of money late this month or early September, according to DOT projections. Without an approval of funds from Congress, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the agency will cut back reimbursements to states for transportation projects already under way. Those projects involve the trucking industry and often hire local contractors.
For years, state officials and transportation leaders have urged lawmakers to approve a long-term bill.