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May 7, 2020 4:15 PM, EDT

Lawmakers Still Eyeing Highway Bill Despite Coronavirus Relief Efforts

truck driving over bridgePaul Sancya/Associated Press

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Legislators are keeping an eye on advancing a new highway policy measure as the federal response to the novel coronavirus dominates much of lawmakers’ time and attention.

“Even though the global pandemic upended the congressional schedule as we know it, our committee has been pushing ahead with a surface transportation reauthorization bill and we hope to share more details in the coming weeks,” a spokeswoman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee told Transport Topics.

The panel’s leaders have said their aim is to advance improvements to freight and commuter connectivity, as well as provisions related to severe-weather resilience, as part of their update of the 2015 FAST Act highway law, which expires Sept. 30.

Before the coronavirus reached pandemic status, transportation committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) had pointed to a March-April timeline for both introducing and considering his version of the highway policy bill. That bill would likely follow a five-year, $760 billion infrastructure policy blueprint House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s caucus unveiled in January.

The blueprint proposed $329 billion for highway programs, $105 billion for transit systems, $86 billion for investments in broadband, $60.5 billion for wastewater and other water infrastructure programs, and $55 billion for rail networks.

The Democrats’ plan did not identify a long-term source of funding for highway projects. The Highway Trust Fund, an account used to support highway programs around the country, operates on dwindling revenue from the federal gas tax and diesel tax. Congress set the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax in 1993.

DeFazio’s Senate counterparts also did not propose a sustainable source of funding for highway programs in a version of the reauthorization they approved last year. On May 6, after his committee advanced two water policy measures, Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted the potential for debating infrastructure policy in the not-so-distant-future.

“President [Donald] Trump has called on Congress to pass infrastructure legislation,” Barrasso said. “Our highway infrastructure legislation, combined with these two water infrastructure bills, will answer the president’s call to help revive our nation’s economy once we have moved beyond the immediate health crisis.”

For several weeks, Trump has argued that injecting up to $2 trillion into the infrastructure network would assist with an economic recovery. He has proposed borrowing the funds to back the massive plan. While Congress has approved for the president nearly $3 trillion for emergency recovery efforts, neither Pelosi nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have announced their intention to prioritize funding for infrastructure. The two have instead focused on boosting businesses and assisting the health care sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key stakeholders observing from the sidelines have stepped up their calls for amplifying the transportation systems.

For instance, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, and former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, with the Building America’s Future advocacy group, recommended congressional leaders dedicate funding for infrastructure improvements.

“As Congress begins consideration of the next COVID-19 response package, we are writing to strongly urge that infrastructure investment be a significant component as a way to jump-start the nation’s economic recovery,” Rendell and LaHood wrote on May 5. “While this unprecedented crisis has demanded responses at all levels of government, it is also an opportunity to make changes to the status quo. Trillions of dollars are rightly being spent to provide critical lifelines to small businesses, hospitals, health care facilities, transit operators and airlines to stay afloat — and it’s clear that more assistance will be needed.”

Freight groups, such as American Trucking Associations, have pushed for additional federal investments as well. To boost funding for transportation programs, ATA has proposed that Congress adopt the Build America Fund as a way of generating $340 billion in about a decade. The fund would rely on a 20-cents-per-gallon fee, phased in over four years, on motor fuels collected at the wholesale rack.

ATA President Chris Spear recently told this publication that modernizing the country’s infrastructure would “yield measurable returns on investment, including putting hundreds of thousands to work, reducing the time and cost to deliver goods to customers throughout the country and taking a massive bite out of traffic and commute times.”

Peter Pantuso

Pantuso

Similarly, American Bus Association Foundation President Peter Pantuso pointed to urgent needs within his industry due to the ongoing economic crisis. The foundation focuses on research and scholarships for the American Bus Association.

“When Congress was handing out $100 billion to airlines, Amtrak and public transportation, they left out the private motorcoach industry,” Pantuso said April 27. “If this industry fails, how will working-class Americans get to their jobs? Who will evacuate Americans during wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes? How will Americans get from rural areas to urban centers for work and leisure? This is going to be a less mobile world without the essential services that motorcoaches provide.”

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