Senate begins debate on highway funding

Senate begins debate on highway funding

WASHINGTON -- The Senate began debate Monday evening on a $317.5 billion, six-year measure to reauthorize the nation's highways and ground transportation construction funding programs.

The Senate voted 75-11 Monday to begin debate on its version of the Transportation Equity Act, S 1072, which would reauthorize the law that expired last October. The program was temporarily extended through the end of this month, and another temporary extension is expected. The House has delayed consideration of its version of the bill (HR 3550).

As debate begins in the Senate, the two chambers remain far apart on funding levels. The House has proposed a six-year, $375 billion measure, while the Senate has proposed a $317.5 billion bill. The Bush administration has proposed $256 billion.

The transportation program, which provides funding formulas for highways and mass transit projects, is funded through the 18.4 cent-per-gallon national gas tax. According to the General Accounting Office, the tax can support about $196 billion in highway programs in the next six years, leaving an anticipated shortfall of $35 billion.

The Bush administration and conservative Republicans have repeatedly stressed that they will not support an increase to the gasoline tax, nor would they allow highway programs to be supported from the general fund.

The Senate Finance Committee on Monday approved a measure (S 1548) that generates the additional $35 billion necessary for highway programs without raising the gasoline tax. The measure, approved 17-4, would generate an additional $14 billion for the highway fund by changing ethanol programs and another $8 billion by changing how fuel tax refunds are paid to organizations that are exempt from the taxes.

Several Senate committees have jurisdiction over portions of the transportation bill. The Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which is responsible for mass transit projects, was scheduled to consider its portion of the bill Tuesday afternoon. Like the Finance Committee proposal, the mass transit portion will be added as an amendment to the bill under consideration on the Senate floor.

The Senate is expected to consider the transportation bill for up to two weeks.