AASHTO Journal, 24 July 2015
With the July 31 expiration of the Highway Trust Fund fast approaching, the Senate quickly unveiled and began debating a 6-year authorization of highway, transit, freight and rail programs that contains revenues to support only three years of funding.
By July 24, it was still not clear whether the House would take up the measure should the Senate complete its work, or whether House GOP leaders would remain committed to the short-term extension to Dec. 18 the House passed at mid-month. One House leader said he did not see the Senate measure “flying in the House.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of 68 transportation and business groups urged lawmakers to enact a strong six-year highway and transit bill this year. And when the research group TRIP issued a report on the pavement quality of many urban roads, several major infrastructure investment advocates used the report to call for Congress to strengthen transportation spending with a long-term bill.
Barring quick Senate action on its measure and then rapid acceptance by the House, both chambers would need to get behind at least a short-term extension before the House leaves the capital July 30 for its scheduled summer recess, or else Federal programs will shut down and the trust fund will lose authority to reimburse states and transit agencies after July 31.
The rollout was bumpy for floor consideration of the Senate’s long-term DRIVE Act – an acronym for Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy.
Although the main highway portion had sailed through committee with unanimous bipartisan support on June 24, the rail and safety provisions had just emerged from another committee at mid-July on a party-line basis while the transit language and financing proposals from two other panels had not been made public before they were unveiled the afternoon of July 21.
In the days before that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had negotiated many of the proposed bill’s provisions with Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee that drew up the highway program provisions and was the lead committee for the entire measure.
The complete, 1,030-page bill was provided to all senators only about half an hour before a vote to begin debate, and it failed July 21 on a first vote for consideration with all Democrats and some Republicans opposed for lack of having a chance to review it.
Late on July 22, the Senate voted narrowly to begin consideration of the bill plus proposed amendments on transportation and unrelated issues. That left the prospect that debate will likely continue into the weekend and the coming week before the Senate could complete its own action and send the measure to the House just days before the program expiration deadline.
As presented on July 23, the DRIVE Act was a comprehensive surface transportation authorization proposal. Similar to the June EPW version of the DRIVE Act, the new version would provide incremental increases over baseline funding for road, transit, and highway safety programs, according to a staff analysis by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
However, it would tap an array of unrelated budget measures to fully fund just three of the six years of program authorization. So in order for the bill’s funding levels in 2019, 2020 and 2021 to materialize, Congress will have to find additional revenue at some point.
The bill included a discretionary freight grant program valued at $200 million a year or $1.2 billion over six years that would be subject to appropriations from the general fund. It would be in addition to a formula-based freight program within the Highway Trust Fund from EPW’s original version of the DRIVE Act, which would start at $1.5 billion in fiscal 2016 and rise in phases to $2.5 billion in 2021.
The transit provisions would largely retain the existing federal transit program structure, though bus and bus facilities funding would be increased, and it would re-establish a discretionary grant component.
The bill’s proposed three years of pay-fors would come from a collection of changes in law. They include cutting a dividend the Federal Reserve pays to large commercial banks for their Fed membership participation, a two-year extension of air transportation security fees, inflation-indexing of customs fees, tax compliance reporting changes, and fees on mortgage lenders from the government-owned mortgage security giants.
The House on July 15 had voted for a clean HTF extension through Dec. 18, to give lawmakers from both chambers time to hammer out a fully funded long-term bill that might be funded through reform of U.S. taxes on foreign profits of U.S. corporations. The White House had issued a statement in support of the House action.
Given the short time remaining before the August recess, and the preference of some House GOP officials to take a different approach on transportation funding, it appeared Congress might still find itself needing to pass a short-term measure this month.
That scenario would have the Senate-passed legislation out there as a marker until the House this fall could pass its own version or agree to conference on the Senate bill.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., expressed doubt that the House would take up the Senate bill. He told reporters July 22 that “I don’t see the Senate” bill “flying in the House,” Politico reported. “This idea of a Senate bill coming together in a last minute that’s not long term, that’s not paid for, I think brings real doubt to a lot of people,” McCarthy said.
And Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that day said while he would wait to see what happened in the Senate he also thought “the House passed a responsible approach last week to fund our highway program through the end of this calendar year,” The Hill newspaper reported.