AASHTO Journal, 17 July 2015
Congress continued to maneuver over surface transportation policy and funding, making some progress on legislation as the countdown continued toward the July 31 expiration of Highway Trust Fund authority.
However, the two chambers were focused on competing courses of action, as the House on July 15 passed a short-term extension of the trust fund while Senate leaders said they still planned to work for a long-term bill this month.
The House measure would extend trust fund highway and transit program authorization through Dec. 18, with its $8.1 billion cost paid for mainly by extending Transportation Security Administration fees for an additional two years and adjusting several tax compliance laws.
That bill’s sponsors – Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa. – said their purpose was to shore up the trust fund long enough for Congress to pass a six-year transportation bill this autumn.
Ryan has said that longer measure could be funded by reforming U.S. taxation on foreign profits of corporations and reaping a temporary tax windfall on repatriated earnings. The fact that the House bill expires in mid-December would force Congress into another vote on the Highway Trust Fund during 2015 to avoid letting it expire.
Meanwhile, the Senate was still working on several long-term measures for this month, despite the short time remaining to work on legislation this month.
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on July 15 marked up a highway safety and rail programs measure, which could be paired with a six-year highway bill already advanced by the Environment and Public Works Committee.
And Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters he had identified tens of billions of dollars in various “pay-fors” to cover highway and transit funding for more than five years. That reportedly included savings from changes in federal pensions, and earnings from sale of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
However, the Commerce bill emerged from committee with no Democratic support after the GOP members rejected a spate of minority amendments, so any floor consideration could involve lengthy debate. Separately, the Banking Committee has yet to unveil a transit measure, so if an EPW-Commerce package reaches the floor the transit piece could be added at that time.
At any rate, even if the Senate does pass a long-term bill and related funding, House leaders have yet to unveil their own long-term authorization bill and there is little time left this month to negotiate a lengthy bill between the chambers.
That left the possibility the Senate could approve its version of a long-term bill, but still need to pass a short extension along with the House to keep the trust fund operating past July 31. Then lawmakers could debate a long-term plan this fall after they return from their August recess.
As the House was debating its short-term bill, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a statement supporting that measure.
“While the country cannot continue to rely on short-term patches as an approach to funding the Nation’s infrastructure,” it said, “the administration supports passage of H.R. 3038 to give the House and Senate the necessary time to complete work on a long-term bill this year that increases investment to meet the nation’s infrastructure needs.”
The House measure was for the most part a clean extension of current program authority. However, it included a section to lower per-gallon taxes on liquefied natural gas, compressed natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas, to equalize them on an energy-equivalent basis to the diesel fuel or gasoline they compete with. Those lower fuel tax rates are estimated to cost $90 million.
The trucking industry and other users of those fuels have long argued that they are overtaxed when using those alternative motor fuels, which are currently taxed at the same per-gallon level as higher-energy diesel or gas even though it takes more volume of the other fuels to power a vehicle over the same distance.
Under the House bill, LPG propane used as a motor fuel would pay 13.2 cents a gallon instead of the 18.3 cents now charged for the gasoline alternative. And LNG would be assessed 14.1 cents a gallon, down from the 24.3 cents it now shares with diesel.