Bipartisan Senate Group Seeks Six-Year US Highway Bill

| Apr 11, 2014 9:11AM EDT

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will pursue a six-year transportation bill that will tap tax reform to pay for highways and restore the Highway Trust Fund to solvency, senior committee members said April 10.

“We have worked to act across party lines before the highway trust fund cannot pay its bills,” said Sen. Barbara D. Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the EPW committee. The trust fund could run out of money as early as July or August, Boxer warned.

“What we have is a detailed outline of the next highway bill in terms of policy matters within our jurisdiction,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the ranking Republican on the EPW committee. A detailed outline, but still an outline, with some details missing.

“Our staff is developing specific legislative language on all of those points,” Vitter said. “A lot of it’s done, a lot of it’s being worked on. We expect to be active on this bill in the next work period after this recess,” which will end April 28. He said a full text of the bill would be available in a few weeks.

Boxer and Vitter spoke at a press conference with Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate transportation and infrastructure subcommittee, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.

The bipartisan group announced their broad agreement amid growing concern Congress will not pass a surface transportation bill before the current two-year law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, expires Sept. 30, forcing an extension or series of extensions of MAP-21 and creating uncertainty about funding.

“States are starting to phone in and saying, ‘Oh my God, if you don’t fix this problem, we will have to stop building our roads and fixing our bridges,’” Boxer said.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week called chances that Congress might pass a bill by the Sept. 30 deadline “very dim,” complaining the current $109 billion two-year law “gave no real definition, no real vision” for a longer program.

With mid-term elections approaching, “I believe it’s going to be difficult to accomplish much this year given the abysmal record of Congress addressing big issues,” LaHood said during a conference call hosted by investment firm Stifel.

The Senate proposal for a six-year program provides a long-term vision, though the EPW committee’s vision does need more definition — especially when it comes to funding.

That will require input from the Senate Commerce and Finance committees. And even if the Senate acts quickly to pass a bill, the House of Representatives moves at its own pace.

The EPW leaders promised a bill that would maintain current trust fund spending levels while accounting for inflation — adding about $16 billion a year beyond what the HTF currently gets from the federal fuels tax, Boxer said. With the HTF currently spending between $49 and $51 billion a year, that probably would put total funding over six years close to $400 billion.

The bill will keep current funding formulas for key programs and pay more attention to opportunities for rural transportation projects, as well as ways to accelerate projects that often stretch out for years, the senators said.

“When the question is how to pay for it, what seems to be coming together as a consensus is a piece of tax reform, rather than shifting (money) from the general fund, rather than raising the gas tax, though some would like to,” Boxer said.

Finding money to pay for highways through tax reform “is a pragmatic solution,” she said. “I’ve come forward with other ideas but I don’t have the kind of support I’d like to have." Boxer supported replacing the fuels tax with a sales tax on oil refineries, an idea she admitted did not have wings. “If I can’t get 60 votes in the Senate, I can’t do it.”

However, it’s not clear whether Congress is ready to move on corporate tax reform this year, with one of its champions, Michigan Republican Dave Camp, planning to retire from the House. Senate leaders Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this year that they see little chance of tax reform in 2014.

Boxer rejected the idea of injecting more general fund dollars into the HTF as a “short-term patch.” More than $52 billion in general fund dollars has been used to plug trust fund gaps since 2008. 

“We’re moving forward fast to avoid that kind of patch,” Boxer said. “We don’t think a ‘patch’ is good governance.” The senators said they will look at any and all funding options for the HTF, including but not limited to tax reform.

“There’s not one silver bullet to fund this program, but a lot of silver BBs,” said Carper, a former governor of Delaware. “We’re going to put together a patchwork quilt of revenue sources and we'll fund this program.”

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com and follow him on Twitter at @wbcassidy_joc.