Senate Panel Approves $265B Highway Bill

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a plan that would spend $265 billion on transportation projects over the next six years — if Congress can come up with the money.

This bill reauthorizes the federal gas tax, which collects $34 billion a year. That would provide $204 billion over the next six years, which is not enough to pay for the projects the panel wants to fund. 

The Senate Finance Committee will have to look at other funding mechanisms to make up the difference. 

"While there's been a lot of hard work putting this bill together, admittedly the real challenge is over in the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee," said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the ranking member of the panel. "A bipartisan finance solution is the only way forward. Such a solution is critical to the success of this bill. Without it, the bill will never move to the [Senate] floor and off the floor.”

The Senate measure would prevent the gas tax from expiring in the in the fall, if it is approved by the House and signed into law.

The House, however, has yet to take significant action on a transportation bill, and some observers are skeptical a deal could be carved out.

It also endorses less spending than President Obama’s suggested four-year, $302 billion infrastructure bill. 

Obama’s bill would increase transportation funding by about $25 billion per year, taking infrastructure funding from a current level of about $50 billion per year to approximately $75 billion annually. 

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is the chairwoman of the Senate Public Works Committee, said Thursday that maintaining the current funding level adjusted for inflation was the best agreement she could reach with Republicans on the panel. 

“We went as far as we could go, [and] the Republicans went as far they could go," Boxer said.

If the bill is approved and fully funded, it would prevent the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money until 2020. 

The federal gas tax is now set at 18.4 cents per gallon, and it has not been increased since 1993. Receipts are being outpaced by infrastructure expenses by an estimated $20 billion per year, leading to calls for an increase in the gas tax or another funding mechanism.

Democrats on the Senate Public Works Committee pushed for a swift resolution to the funding problem Thursday. 

“Our states and cities and towns are counting on us to be a partner in infrastructure investment, and we need to work together to deliver,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who is also a member of the Senate Finance Committee. 

Carper said after the meeting that he was optimistic the Senate would find the money that is needed to pay for the long-term transportation bill.  

“I have had productive conversations with many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate Finance Committee about the funding for this bill, and I am confident we can coalesce around a common-sense solution,”  he said in a statement released after the vote Thursday. “As a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, I believe Congress will do what it must and act to shore up the Highway Trust Fund and provide the long-term certainty that will benefit nearly every business and resident across the country.”

Transportation advocates praised the Senate Public Works Committee for unanimously agreeing on the infrastructure funding package on Thursday. 

“The fact that a new highway and transit bill proposed by Sens. Vitter and Boxer received the bipartisan backing of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee shows members of both parties understand the value of investing in our aging surface transportation systems,” Associated General Contractors of America CEO Stephen Sandherr said in a statement released after the vote. 

“This bill will make it significantly easier for state and local transportation officials to plan for and fund projects to rebuild bridges, repair roads and improve transit options,” Sandherr continued. “More important, it continues the work started in the prior transportation law of streamlining the federal review process so new projects can be reviewed and approved within a more reasonable time frame.”


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