The House of Representatives voted 387 to 35 Tuesday to extend the program that supports state highway and transit projects through the end of July.
The current authorization for the federal highway trust fund was set to expire on May 31. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx made clear last week that if lawmakers didn’t do something before that deadline, the Federal Highway Administration would furlough employees and payments to states for their projects would stop.
Tuesday’s vote postpones, for the 33rd time in six years, a broader discussion about how to sustain the highway fund, which once was supported solely by federal motor fuel taxes. But those taxes remain what they were in 1993, and Congress has transferred about $65 billion in general revenues to the fund since 2008 to keep it solvent.
While Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, said the two-month stopgap measure wasn’t his first choice, he urged his colleagues to support it.
“A vote against this bill is a vote for shutting down essential programs,” he said on the House floor Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement, the White House said it didn’t oppose the extension, but lamented the funding uncertainty that’s caused many states to pull back on road and bridge projects.
The Office of Management and Budget said the House measure “represents yet one more short-term extension coming on top of the several short-term extensions that preceded it.”
Foxx said in a blog post Tuesday evening that the administration expected lawmakers to make the next two months count.
“I know; you’ve heard this and read this before,” Foxx wrote. “But I am optimistic and hopeful that this time is different, and that the current streak will end at 33.”
Before Tuesday’s vote, it had only been 10 months since Congress had approved the last extension, intending to put together a multiyear transportation bill by this spring.
The failure of lawmakers to do that prompted some Democrats and Republicans to oppose the two-month patch.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said he’d had enough of the long speeches followed by short-term measures.
“Four months? Seven months?” Pascrell said on the floor, incredulously. “It’s a joke!”
Pascrell is co-sponsoring a bill with Republican Reps. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Jim Renacci of Ohio to fix the highway trust fund for a deacade.
The Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act has 14 co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle and the endorsement of major business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the trucking industry, highway users and organized labor.
Significantly, the bill would index the federal fuel taxes to inflation. The per-gallon taxes of 18.4 cents on gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon on diesel have stayed constant whether gasoline cost $2 or $4 a gallon.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., earlier said that drivers would pay about 1.7 cents more per gallon, a modest increase that he said would cost no lawmaker re-election.
“It’s time to suck it up around here,” he said.
DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the transportation committee, introduced the Grow America Act, which is the Obama administration’s six-year, $478 billion blueprint for transportation. It has 19 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
Separately, the House defeated, on a purely party-line vote, a measure offered by Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., to authorize $750 million to aid Amtrak and commuter railroads with installation of positive train control.
The National Transportation Safety Board has called for the safety technology for many years and said it could have prevented last week’s deadly overspeed derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia. The NTSB is investigating what caused the crash, which killed eight people and injured 200 others.
Most railroads will miss the Dec. 31 deadline set by Congress for installing the system.