Capitol Hill Sets Hearings on Options to Fund Long-Term Highway/Transit Legislation

AASHTO Journal, 12 June 2015

The revenue-raising House Ways and Means Committee scheduled a June 17 hearing and the Senate Finance Committee slated one on June 18, to consider ways to pay for a long-term reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund’s road and transit programs.

And in a speech on the Senate floor, a key Democratic senator said she was hearing talk of progress behind the scenes on transportation legislation.

boxerjune10.jpg Boxer: 2007 bridge collapse “is a metaphor for where we are.”

Those hearings could shed light on the thinking of Republican House and Senate leaders who control the agenda about how soon a bill can emerge and how Congress would fund it.

Any breakthrough on the financing issues at Ways and Means would clear the way for the Transportation and Infrastructure under Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., to move an authorization measure through the House side of the Capitol.

In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee already plans to mark up the highway portion of a long-term bill, but two other committees have yet to schedule action on transit and safety portions. Any new plan for funding could spur quick action by those panels as well.

Congressional Democrats have been warning that some of their members no longer want to support further short-term extensions that disrupt planning and financing of construction projects across the nation.

Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in announcing his hearing, said: “The roads and bridges that keep our economy moving rely on a highly unsustainable financing system. Solving this challenge for the long term will require us to think big, and I look forward to exploring new ideas to close the shortfall once and for all.”

In the Senate, the Finance Committee scheduled its hearing under the title: “Dead End, No Turn Around, Danger Ahead: Challenges to the Future of Highway Funding.”

It will hear testimony from former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a staunch advocate of increased infrastructure investment, plus Joseph Kile of the Congressional Budget Office and Stephen Moore of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

The chairman of the House panel for select revenue measures, Dave Reichert, R-Wash., said getting a multiyear fix to the trust fund “is badly needed not just in my home state of Washington, but across the nation.” He said his subcommittee “will be examining whether we could finance a multi-year highway bill as we make our international tax system more competitive.”

Minority Ways and Means members wrote Ryan in May asking him to hold hearings this month “that fully consider all funding options.”

Ranking minority member Sander Levin, D-Mich., recently asked the Congressional Budget Office to estimate the likely trust fund shortfall; the CBO said the highway and transit accounts will need up to an extra $90 billion to cover their projected needs through May 31, 2021, at current funding levels plus inflation.

Meanwhile, a number of state officials have urged Congress to provide long-term certainty and more funding for surface transportation programs, and have said recent short-term extensions have slowed infrastructure investments.

On June 9, as expected, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department took bids for just two projects in its latest bid-letting, after earlier announcing it was delaying other work due to lack of funding certainty from Congress.

“The real story about this week’s letting is what’s not in there,” said AHTD Director Scott Bennett. “Last month we withdrew nine projects from this letting worth an estimated $120 million due to uncertainty of federal-aid reimbursements available from the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Here we are in the heart of the construction season and we were only able to take bids on two highway projects. It’s sad.”

So far this year, Arkansas has delayed $282 million worth of projects it initially planned to work on in 2015, and could soon decide to pull more projects from a scheduled July bidding.

“Already our attention has turned toward the July 21st letting,” Bennett told AASHTO Journal, “as we continue to evaluate our scheduled federally funded projects to ensure sufficient state funds are available, to fulfill commitments during reductions or delays in federal reimbursements.”

USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said Arkansas said the high level of uncertainty around the Highway Trust Fund “is killing the will to build. Already, six states have canceled or postponed $2 billion worth of projects this year, he added.

The hearings will come a week before a June 24 markup by the EPW Committee of its highway programs portion of a long-term reauthorization.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., EPW’s rank Democrat, said June 10 on the Senate floor that “we’re headed for another self-inflicted crisis” with just weeks left before the July 31 expiration of the trust fund.

However, she said, “I have heard rumors that we’re making progress.” Boxer added: “I must say, from conversations I’ve had, I have some hope … that we can avert this crisis.”

Still, she warned, other Senate committees need to act on the legislation within a very short time, “so unless a miracle occurs, I believe my Republican friends are going to ask us for yet another short-term extension.”

Separately, the House passed a housing and transportation appropriations bill that among other things would cut transit spending outside of the trust fund and slash the funding level for the DOT’s TIGER infrastructure grants.

The White House had already threatened a veto if the bill reached the president. But any final appropriations measure would be subject to changes from the Senate, and its surface transportation portions could be further affected if Congress agreed on a multiyear plan to fund highway and transit programs.

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