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February 20, 2020 2:00 PM, EST

Top Congressional Republicans Press for Action on Highway Bill

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) by Susan Walsh/Associated Press

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Congress resumes its legislative agenda amid recent calls from Republican leaders on the transportation committees for passage of a highway bill meant to update a law expiring in seven months.

John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, reminded lawmakers about a highway policy bill he advanced following a resounding endorsement from President Donald Trump during the State of the Union.

“There is more to do to improve the quality of life and that is to pass a bipartisan highway bill,” Barrasso told reporters on Capitol Hill on Feb. 11. His colleague, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed the sentiment: “We have the highway bill that we need to address this year.”

The EPW’s 5-year, $287 billion highway policy bill was approved unanimously last summer by the committee. The bill, however, stopped short of covering matters regarding the Highway Trust Fund, public transit and commercial transportation.

On the House side, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the Transportation and Infrastructure panel ranking member, recently affirmed his commitment to approve a bipartisan highway measure.

There are no Republican roads or Democratic bridges, and potholes don’t just cause headaches for conservatives or liberals; they’re a pain in the rear end for all of us.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.)

Sam Graves

“Last year, there was significant interest in working on a broad, bipartisan bill to address many of these problems, yet Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s petty personal feud with President Trump brought things to a screeching halt,” he said Feb. 13. “Politics shouldn’t get in the way of repairing, updating and improving our infrastructure. There are no Republican roads or Democratic bridges, and potholes don’t just cause headaches for conservatives or liberals; they’re a pain in the rear end for all of us.”

House Democrats on the committee with Graves have not announced when their version would be unveiled.

The White House, meanwhile, intends to have a say on the highway bill. Included in the fiscal 2021 budget request to Congress was the administration’s announcement that details about its highway reauthorization proposal would be announced in a few months.

Following the publication of the budget request Feb. 10, Nicole Nason, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said, “We’ve offered record levels of assistance to both the Senate and the House so that we know that they are working up there to try to get legislations through the process.”

She added, “We look forward to working with Congress in the coming months.”

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House and Senate lawmakers as well as administration officials acknowledge that the next highway bill would need to address the looming insolvency of a federal highway funding account. This Highway Trust Fund account, used to help states with maintenance and construction, relies on insufficient revenue from fuel taxes. Congress set the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax rate and 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax rate in 1993.

American Trucking Associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups recommend raising fuel taxes to resolve the trust fund’s woes. ATA has proposed the Build America Fund, which would impose a 20 cents-per-gallon user fee on transportation fuels, applied at the wholesale terminal rack at a rate of five cents per year over four years.

Tom Donohue, the chamber’s president, has proposed a five-cent increase over five years. As he put it, “Increasing the fee by a total of [25] cents, indexed for inflation and improving fuel economy, would raise $394 billion over the next 10 years.”

The same groups also urge policymakers to advance a highway reauthorization prior to the current law’s expiration.

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