Deadlines Come and Go for National Highway Laws

John Barrasso
John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which gave a five-year, $287 billion surface transportation bill unanimous backing last year. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg News)

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This year, during his State of the Union address to Congress, President Donald Trump urged lawmakers to pass a highway bill that a Senate committee had advanced months earlier.

Trump said, “We must also rebuild America’s infrastructure. I ask you to pass Sen. John Barrasso’s highway bill to invest in new roads, bridges and tunnels all across our land.”

When the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Barrasso, gave a five-year, $287 billion surface transportation bill unanimous backing last year, meeting a reauthorizing deadline of Sept. 30, 2020 seemed realistic. The country’s marquee five-year highway law — the FAST Act — expires at the end of this month.



The Senate bill focuses on streamlining environmental permitting and tackling climate change. Yet, provisions pertaining to other modes and a sustainable source of funding were not included.

Despite the political animus displayed at House committees charged with impeachment, the transportation-centric panel, chaired by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), managed to advance its reauthorizing version this summer, albeit along party lines.

Since the bill’s passage in the House, not much has taken place that would ensure enactment of the replacement to the 2015 highway law.

Accustomed to seeing Congress miss previous highway law’s reauthorizing deadlines, the transportation community undoubtedly recognized multiple signs suggesting this year would be no different.

The red flags were obvious. This election year created a toxic political climate on Capitol Hill impeding progress on big-ticket reauthorizing measures. The pandemic dominated the legislative agenda. And, for congressional leaders, fixing the transportation system’s looming funding woes is a crisis not worth having.


Rep. Peter DeFazio (Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg News)

Nearly 100 transportation groups consisting of the dominant players in their sectors and industries recently presented House and Senate leaders with a plan. Essentially, in so many words, they proposed the approval of a yearlong extension of the FAST Act’s provisions, with emergency funding for departments of transportation and public transit agencies nationwide to the tune of $37 billion and $32 billion, respectively. And ensure the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund during the yearlong extension. The trust fund, which helps cover the costs of the nation’s highway and transit systems, depends on insufficient revenue from fuel taxes.

In a letter Sept. 9 to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and the ranking leaders, the groups argued: “The current surface transportation law — the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act — expires in 21days. … Passing legislation that includes the aforementioned priorities would enable critical improvements that increase the safety and efficiency of the surface transportation system.”

At the moment, congressional leaders have not responded.

TransportationStakeholders Letter by Transport Topics on Scribd

The Week Ahead

Sept. 14-21: Stakeholders host virtual events for a campaign titled, “United for Infrastructure 2020: A Week to Champion America’s Infrastructure.”

Sept. 15, 9:30 a.m.: The National Transportation Safety Board meets to examine a freight railroad accident report. Watch the proceedings

Sept. 16, 9:45 a.m.: The Senate Commerce Committee meets to consider policy measures and transportation nominations.

Sept. 17, 11 a.m.: The Washington Post hosts a webinar on infrastructure and innovation. Participants include Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Plano, Texas, Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. Watch the webinar

Sept. 17, 1 p.m.: The Department of Homeland Security hosts a meeting of the president’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council.

Freight Corridor

Brookings offers a treatment on the view from Zoom.

Election 2020: Biden v. Trump

Four years ago, when then-candidate Donald Trump promoted the notion of a wall along the southern border, he explained Mexico would pay for such a massive infrastructure project.


Al Drago/Bloomberg News

Fast forward to the present, and U.S. taxpayers have funded President Trump’s brief but significant wall updates. On that point, Trump recently suggested erecting a tolling system at the border — with Mexico financing the infrastructure project over the years.

The proposal is part of the limited reservoir of comments about infrastructure the incumbent has shared with constituents this year. After previously campaigning as a “builder-in-chief,” and then unveiling a private sector-centric plan not-so-early into his presidency, Trump appears to have abandoned the pursuit of an infrastructure policy measure this year. A re-election campaign dominated by claims of a radical socialist threat has placed discussions on transportation policy in the background.


Justin Merriman/Bloomberg News

Trump’s challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, is promoting a “Build Back Better” slogan, that, for transportation purposes, entails devoting attention to climate change concerns and tweaking Trump’s tax updates to fund big-ticket projects.

Neither candidate has addressed the relevant question of funding, as in, how to ensure the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. (The federal highway account is backed by dwindling fuel tax revenues. Key stakeholders recommend raising gas and diesel taxes to boost the account.) But in an election year, one would think that an easy sell — such as national investments to mitigate traffic congestion — would be a politically coveted opportunity.


Short-term extensions are coming, insiders tell Transport Topics.

Favorite Video

For some groups, it’s awards season.

Favorite Tweet

The hits keep on coming this presidential year.

The Last Word

We rebuilt our military; we revived this economy. In our first three years, 7 million jobs created.

Vice President Mike Pence on Sept. 9.


We publish weekly when Congress is in session. E-mail with tips. Follow us @eugenemulero and @transporttopics.

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