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A Senate panel unanimously approved the highway segment of the surface transportation reauthorization, but a long road remains as lawmakers must agree on other portions of the bill, including transit, and ultimately must find a way to pay for the programs.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved the highway bill (S. 2322) May 15 via voice vote after agreeing to several amendments en bloc. The six-year bill funds highway programs at current levels plus inflation. Now attention turns to the different committees that oversee the transit, safety and financing portions of the bill.

The multiyear bill primarily continues current policy but has a few additions, including the creation of a formula-based freight program, expanding a national infrastructure grant program and directing the Transportation Department to study alternative revenue mechanisms for the Highway Trust Fund.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a lead writer of the highway bill, told reporters he was surprised but encouraged that the legislation was received so positively by committee members. He acknowledged that the toughest obstacle—finding the billions of dollars needed for a long-term proposal—remains unresolved.

“It's a little bit like eating an elephant—we do it one bite at a time. And, today, we took a big bite, an important first bite,” said Carper, who serves as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works transportation subcommittee and also is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Commerce Holds Hearing

Later in the day, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing examining the effect of the reauthorization on cities and states.

The Senate Commerce committee oversees the safety programs in the bill, while the Senate Banking Committee has jurisdiction over the mass transit portion. The Senate Finance Committee is tasked with finding funding for the reauthorization.

The Senate environment committee approved several amendments en bloc, including technical changes to the bill. Other amendments adopted include:

 

• an amendment reducing funding for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) grant program from $1 billion annually to the fiscal year 2013 level of $750 million per year, with the additional federal dollars going to support university transportation centers;

• a proposal requiring the DOT to map out a national network of electrical vehicle corridors and recharging stations;

• an amendment increasing the percentage of federal dollars states can use to repair bridges outside of the National Highway System; and

• an amendment to ensure Highway Trust Fund solvency by requiring reductions in spending if adequate offsets aren't included in the final bill.

Similar Provision in 2012 Law

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), author of the solvency amendment, told Bloomberg BNA a similar proposal was included in the 2012 surface transportation law.

“I think it emphasizes to the Finance Committee that this is really serious and we have to find appropriate pay-fors, offsets, for the highway bill,” Sessions said. “It's not a little matter. It's the big cloud over this whole thing.”

Congress will need to find about $100 billion in additional revenue to fund a six-year highway and transit bill at current levels plus inflation, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. Current policy (Pub. L. No. 112-141) doesn't expire until after September, but lawmakers may have to address the funding issue much sooner.

The most recent DOT projection, updated May 14, shows the highway account will likely dip below the critical level needed to meet day-to-day obligations in July.

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told Bloomberg BNA that his committee is working on a short-term patch but wasn't yet sure where the funding would come from.

“Both sides are looking at it with everything they can. We know we have to do something; the question is what,” Hatch said. “We probably have until the middle of July to get something done. “

Since 2008, Congress has relied on about $54 billion in general fund transfers to maintain Highway Trust Fund solvency. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has said the committee will need to find about $10 billion in additional revenue to fund federal highway and transit programs through the calendar year.