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House bill attempts to prevent highway fund insolvency; Dems bash bill for being short-term

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) said about H.R. 5021, which he cosponsored: “We have an immediate, critical need to address the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and extend the current surface transportation law. This bill does that in a responsible way with policies that have all previously received strong bipartisan and bicameral support.

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A pair of influential Senate Democrats is opposing a plan from Republicans in the House to push a fight over transportation and infrastructure funding into the next Congress, while sponsors say it staves off insolvency while a longer-range plan is developed. 

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the GOP proposal would prevent lawmakers from attempting to win approval for a long-term transportation funding bill after the midterm elections, which has been the hope of infrastructure advocates. 

“The House’s plan to kick the can down the road and pass a temporary patch for the Highway Trust Fund until next May derails the effort to pass a long-term transportation bill this year,” Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

 “This ill-conceived proposal would prolong uncertainty for business, local governments and the states and would create another financial crisis right before the next construction season,” Boxer continued. “Passing a long-term transportation bill this year would provide a real boost for our economic recovery. The American people have a right to expect no less.”

Republican leaders in the House said Tuesday that their plan would extend current transportation funding levels until May 2015 in an effort to avoid a potential increase to the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax during a lame-duck session after the November elections.

“Any effort that just goes to the end of this year will only lead to another backroom deal during the lame-duck session where only a very few members are present or have any say in the matter,” House Ways and Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said after his $10.5 billion proposal was released.

“I’ve been in that room enough, and it is time for the committees and the entire House and Senate to have the full influence they deserve,” Camp continued. “What troubles me most about a Dec. 31, 2014, date are those using it as a ploy to stick the American people with a massive increase in the gas tax — just about the worst tax increase Congress could hit hardworking Americans with. So, I am seeking the reasonable middle ground of the end of May 2015.”  

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) released the following statement on H.R. 5021, which he cosponsored:

“We have an immediate, critical need to address the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and extend the current surface transportation law.  This bill does that in a responsible way with policies that have all previously received strong bipartisan and bicameral support.  If Congress fails to act, thousands of transportation projects and hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country will be at risk.

“By funding surface transportation programs through May 2015, this legislation provides certainty and stability for states, while also providing Congress time to continue working on a long-term funding solution and a surface transportation reauthorization bill.  A shorter extension would guarantee a manufactured crisis in December when some might be inclined to play politics with these issues or use them as vehicles for unrelated policies that should be subject to the full and open debate they deserve.

“This bill in no way precludes Congress from continuing to work on addressing a long-term funding solution, and a long-term reauthorization bill remains a top priority for the Transportation Committee,” he added.  “However, this legislation is the responsible solution at this time, ensures that we don’t play politics with these programs, and provides for making continued improvements to our surface transportation system.”

The Ways and Means Committee approved H.R. 5021 during a committee markup today.

Lawmakers are debating infrastructure funding with more urgency as money in the Highway Trust Fund dwindles, The Hill reported. The Department of Transportation has warned that the fund will run out of money in August unless Congress approves a cash infusion.

Transportation advocates have pushed for lawmakers to increase the federal gas tax for the first time since 1993 to pay for a long-term highway bill.

The gas tax has long been the traditional source for funding for transportation projects. But the tax has been stagnant for two decades and has struggled to keep pace with infrastructure expenses as cars have become more fuel efficient.

The proposal to raise the tax has stalled with lawmakers reluctant to increase the amount drivers pay in the middle of an election year. The White House has also said that President Obama is opposed to a gas tax hike.

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves quickly put in a plug for fuel tax increases, something ATA has sanctioned all along. “Our industry pays $18 billion each year into the federal Highway Trust Fund through taxes and fees — more than 40 percent of total highway user fees — because the highway system is the trucking industry's workplace. Companies that fail to maintain and modernize their plants and equipment inevitably fail. The highway system is no different,” Graves said.

 “That is why ATA's members have long sought an increase in highway user fees. It is past time to make the investments necessary to maintain the safety and efficiency of our highways. We applaud the House and Senate committees for moving a short term solution forward, but extending the funding problem well into 2015, could endanger the nation's economy, the future of the trucking industry and, most importantly, the safety of truck drivers and other highway users.”

Camp maintained his eight-month proposal, which relies on revenue from pension changes and custom fees, is “the only package with a proven history of getting big bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate.”

Carper said Wednesday that “the House Republicans’ proposal to put off a long-term fix to the Highway Trust Fund crisis until next spring is a flawed strategy that will further undermine the ability of states and cities to invest in transformative, large-scale transportation projects, hinder private sector job creation, and will likely continue a harmful cycle of short-term extensions indefinitely. 

“We know all that we need to know about the options for fixing the Highway Trust Fund and fulfilling our promise to states to be a partner in infrastructure investment,” Carper said. “We’ve already been contemplating this problem for more than five years. Giving Congress another year will not reveal any new solutions, it’s only stalling and dodging the hard decisions that voters sent us to Congress to make.”

Carper said Republicans in the Senate have been working on a shorter patch that would carry transportation funding until the end of the year and be more viable politically.

“In the Finance Committee, Chairman [Ron] Wyden [D-Ore.] and Ranking Member [Orrin] Hatch [R-Utah] have been working hard on a bipartisan approach to fund our transportation system through the immediate need in this summer construction season and I urge them to finish that process to set the table for a meaningful long-term funding solution later this fall,” Carper said. “The time to act is in 2014 and any proposal that fails to do that should be a nonstarter.”

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