House, Senate propose quick fix for highway trust fund; business, others want real fix

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 10, 2014 


Motorists on I-20 follow snow plow trucks near Highway 6 near Lexington, S.C., Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014.


— House of Representatives and Senate committees approved plans Thursday to shore up the foundering highway trust fund through next May, but several business groups told lawmakers they want a longer-term solution by the end of this year.

The groups sounded the same alarm as some Democrats in recent days about postponing a permanent fix.

“Our message to Congress is simple,” said Pete Ruane, president and CEO the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “Your job isn’t close to being done.”

Ruane’s group and others, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Trucking Associations and AAA, vented their frustration Thursday.

“Renewing the debate next year under a new Congress would start us over at square one, making it nearly impossible to secure long-term transportation funding anytime soon,” said Bob Darbelnet, president and CEO of AAA.

The trust fund is supported by federal motor fuels taxes last set in 1993. The 18.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and a 24.4 cents-a-gallon diesel tax were not indexed to inflation and have lost buying power over two decades. The U.S. Department of Transportation projects that the fund will become insolvent sometime next month.

Rather than raise the gas tax or find another sustainable source of funding, lawmakers have paved over the shortfall with more than $50 billion in general revenues since 2008.

Last week, Secretary Anthony Foxx said that unless Congress agrees on a short-term fix by Aug. 1, states can expect to see an average 28 percent drop in federal payments for their highway construction projects.

According to Michael Green, a spokesman for AAA, construction season is in full swing.

“This is a time of year when funding is needed,” he said.

The $11 billion stopgap that Ways and Means approved Thursday would shore up the highway fund through May 15, 2015, and would be paid for by various offsets that Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican who chairs the committee, said both parties have supported in the past.

“The House and Senate can easily pass this legislation,” he said.

But after the Senate Finance Committee moved forward Thursday with its own $10.8 billion quick-fix plan, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the panel, accused the House of advancing a partisan bill.

Wyden’s Senate proposal, which would use different offsets and close certain tax loopholes, resulted from a partnership with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee’s ranking member. Their bill does not contain the December deadline preferred by some Senate Democrats.

Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who’s a member of the Finance Committee, said he would oppose any bill that pushes the issue into next year.

“I know how Congress works,” he said, “and if we extend transportation funding past the end of this year, I guarantee that next year, we’ll extend it again.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, was more optimistic.

“We still have an opportunity to pass a long-term bill this year,” she said after the Senate Finance vote.

Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who leads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and co-sponsored the House bill, defended the longer timeline.

“A shorter extension would guarantee a manufactured crisis in December when some might be inclined to play politics with these issues,” he said.

In a letter Thursday, however, the chamber broke with its usual Republican allies and appeared to side with Boxer and Carper.

“The longer the patch,” the chamber wrote Camp, “the easier it will be for Congress to kick the can down the road.”

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