Transportation groups, states praise Senate committee passage of 6-year highway bill

The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee unanimously passed a six-year transportation authorization bill on Wednesday, a step praised by transportation advocates who said long-term stability in funding the nation’s infrastructure projects is needed by states.

The current authorization for surface transportation spending expires on July 31. Congressional committees have been holding hearings to address the best way to fund a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.

The bill, called the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act, or DRIVE Act, would reauthorize and increase highway spending from $37.8 billion under the current MAP-21 program to $45.5 billion in 2021. Over six years, $257.5 billion will be sent to states.

“We’re a country that very much relies on an Interstate Highway System for delivery of products and for moving people around and in order to build and maintain that the contractors have to be able to plan, and the state departments of transportation have to be able to plan,” said Jeff Loveng, CEO and chairman of America's Infrastructure Alliance, a coalition of transportation organizations.

“And having a longer-term bill, in this case six years, really helps them plan accordingly to do the construction that needs to be done which saves the taxpayers money,” Loveng added.

States, local governments and transportation groups have called for a long-term and reliable funding stream to pay for transportation projects, such as road and bridge repairs, which they view as critical to the nation’s economy.

With Congress opting for numerous short-term extensions of the Highway Trust Fund, many states have postponed key transportation projects amid the uncertain outlook for federal funding.

“I just don’t see how any state can keep an ongoing program going without the reassurance that the federal government is going to repay their debt because states spend the money and then get reimbursed,” said Gary Ridley, Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation.

“In our state, for example, we have close to $1 billion in contracts that have already been let that over the next year we will be asking for reimbursement for,” he added.

U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the EPW committee, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., ranking member of the committee, said they would work with Senate leaders to bring the DRIVE Act to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of July. The Senate Finance Committee would need to determine the funding sources of the bill.

“This bill comes not a moment too soon because with 38 days away from the expiration of the current highway program extension, shortly after that the trust fund, which funds highways and transit, will go broke,” Boxer said in opening remarks at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

The DRIVE Act would provide new funds for major projects through a competitive grant program. In addition, the bill would create a multibillion-dollar per year freight program to help states ensure the reliable transportation of consumer goods.

It also provides support for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program, allowing states and local governments to leverage federal funds for transportation projects and maximize investments, particularly in rural areas.

Federal gas tax revenue is a primary source of funding for transportation, but with more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, it has fallen short. The federal gas tax has been at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.

A number of Republican lawmakers, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, have ruled out a gas tax increase to pay for the Highway Trust Fund.

If lawmakers fail to reach a decision on a long-term funding plan and elect for another short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, Ridley said, “I think you’ll just shut down the construction that will be taking place this summer in all states.”

The shortfall in transportation funding is currently estimated at approximately $15 billion per year. As a result, thousands of roads and bridges are in critical need of repair.

“We have 61,300 structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. and 50 percent of our roads are in less-than-good condition,” Boxer noted.