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November 19, 2014 1:00 PM, EST

Key House Democrat DeFazio Sees Opportunity to Pass Long-Term Highway Bill Next Congress

Carol T. Powers/Bloomberg News

Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, elected Nov. 19 as the House Democrats’ top transportation leader in the next Congress, told Transport Topics this week he is hopeful about Congress’ chances of advancing a long-term highway bill before the current law expires in May.

“If you skate up to the end of May, you’re having a dramatic impact on the coming years’ construction season, and if you adopt another temporary patch, you’re having a huge detrimental impact on larger projects that states might be planning that require multiple years’ expenditures,” DeFazio said. “So I think it will be very detrimental for the economy, not to mention our infrastructure, if we don’t have a long-term bill in place before that deadline.”

DeFazio succeeds Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who was defeated in the midterm elections. DeFazio, the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, was re-elected to a 15th term.

The Oregonian said his longtime working relationship with Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the transportation committee’s chairman, will help the panel advance major transportation bills in the 114th Congress, which begins in January.

On Nov. 19, the House Republican Conference selected Shuster to serve again as chairman of the transportation committee.

“For the most part, when it comes to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure — roads, bridges, highways, transit systems, water systems, sewer systems — anything that we have jurisdiction over, the chairman wants to make improvements, as do I,” DeFazio said. “So I think we can work together very well.”

Even though congressional aides have begun drafting provisions for a surface transportation reauthorization, DeFazio expects the transportation committee to kick off its agenda with a reauthorization of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs.

If the committee proceeds with an FAA bill first, transportation experts say Congress will have less time for passing a long-term highway bill, increasing the likelihood lawmakers will opt for a short-term funding patch in the spring.

Lawmakers have consistently extended highway funding authority in recent years, because they have been unable to agree on a sustainable funding source for the Highway Trust Fund, an account used by the U.S. Department of Transportation to help states pay for infrastructure.

Several industries and their representatives, including the leadership of American Trucking Associations, support raising the federal tax on gas and diesel to provide the trust fund with multiyear funding. DeFazio has proposed a plan, which consists of replacing the per-gallon gas tax with a tax on oil barrels as they enter refineries. Republican leaders who control the House have not indicated whether they would schedule a debate on DeFazio’s bill. There also has not been strong support on Capitol Hill for raising fuel taxes.

MAP-21, a 2012 highway funding law, was set to expire in September, but Congress voted to extend its authority through the spring of 2015 by transferring nearly $11 billion to the trust fund through a budgetary adjustment commonly referred to as “pension smoothing.” That accounting technique allows companies to reduce required contributions to their retirement plans as a way of inflating their taxable income temporarily.