September 7, 2015 3:45 AM, EDT

How to Fund Highway Bill Tops Congressional Agenda

Chris Hag/Flickr
This story appears in the Sept. 7 print edition of Transport Topics.

Finding a way to keep highway programs funded for several years will be at the top of Congress’ fall agenda, which kicks off this week.

This month will be the House’s turn to act on a multiyear bill. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a senior transportation authorizer, said she anticipates House Republican leaders will be able to stitch together a three-year transportation measure.

Before recessing for the summer break, the Senate advanced a six-year highway bill which Boxer said could serve as a model for the House’s companion legislation. The Senate bill would fund highway programs for three years.

In conversations with her House counterpart, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio (D), as well as Transportation committee Chairman Bill Shuster(R-Pa.), the senator said Shuster “seemed very ready to go” on advancing a multiyear highway bill.

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The latest authorization of highway programs, signed into law before the August break, expires at the end of October.

“Believe me, that would be the first time in 10 years we’ve funded a multiyear bill,” Boxer said Aug. 31 at the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco. She also stressed that it is “ridiculous that we haven’t solved the long-term problem of how to pay” for highway programs.

Shuster told reporters this summer he is committed to leading his panel in passing a significant transportation policy bill, acknowledging the displeasure several colleagues and industry leaders share over the consistent reliance on stopgap funding extensions on highway programs.

Congress has approved 34 funding extensions for highway programs since 2009.

Senior aides told Transport Topics the House measure, like the Senate bill, is likely to include provisions on hair testing for pre-employment and random screening as an alternative to urinalysis, changes in size and weight regulations for trucks and to establish a program to allow truck drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 to operate in interstate commerce.

Financing a multiyear bill remains a key challenge for lawmakers, and Shuster, mindful of that, said he is collaborating with the leaders of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee to fund the bill under congressional budget rules.

Ways and Means members oversee the Highway Trust Fund, the account that relies on revenue from fuel taxes to help states pay for infrastructure projects. Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is against raising fuel taxes to boost the dwindling account, complicating how lawmakers come up with the $90 billion that a Congressional Budget Office estimation said is needed to keep highway programs funded for six years.

The Obama administration has called on transportation leaders to finance a multiyear highway bill through revenue from a one-time 14% tax on the earnings U.S. corporations have kept overseas. The White House’s proposal was introduced as legislation by Democrats in the House, despite dismissal of the idea by GOP leaders.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also is doing its part with a social media campaign — hashtagged #ShowUsYourInfraWear — that urges the public to upload photos and videos of aging infrastructure to be showcased on a blog.

“We know of at least seven states that have pulled back on transportation projects because of uncertain federal funding,” said Todd Solomon, the department’s digital media director.

The Transportation Construction Coalition, a group of contractors and unions that plays key roles in the industry, is pressuring Congress on a multiyear bill. It is relying on radio ads targeting Ryan and 15 other Republicans on the Ways and Means and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. The 30-second ads started airing in late August.

“About 55% of Wisconsin’s annual capital investment in highways and bridges depends on federal funding. But Congress has not yet passed a long-term highway bill. That puts our funding at risk and hurts our state’s ability to plan mobility and safety improvements. Tell Rep. Paul Ryan it’s time for the House of Representatives to get a long-term highway bill passed now. Wisconsin depends on it,” the ad says.

Many transportation groups and stakeholders insist the short-term fixes limit their ability to plan for long-term infrastructure projects. States rely on federal assistance to finance new roads and bridges.

Aside from a highway bill, the White House also is asking Congress for an extension of the Export-Import Bank’s charter this fall. The administration said an extension of the Ex-Im Bank’s expired charter is necessary for commerce. Congress allowed the bank’s authorization to expire June 30.

Staff members from the bank are overseeing existing loans and certain deals. They are not authorized to engage in new agreements. The Ex-Im Bank was established to help American firms finance exports by providing lending assistance.