In a half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none action, the U.S. House of Representatives, led by new Speaker Paul Ryan, passed a six-year transportation bill aimed at stanching the widespread deterioration of the nation’s highway system.
But the legislation provides funding for only three of the six years — maybe not a kick-the-can-down-the-road field goal; rather, just a punt.
The 363 to 64 vote, which incongruously included renewal of the controversial Export-Import Bank, provides $325 billion to pay for transportation programs the first three years, but zilch for the final three. Of that, $261 billion would go to highway programs, the rest for mass transit and safety.
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An increase in the federal gasoline tax, stagnant at 18.4 cents for nearly 20 years, didn’t figure in the deal; the House Rules Committee torpedoed voting on any tax increase amendments. With more fuel-efficient vehicles, and little or no increase in number of gallons pumped by U.S. drivers, that tax generates fewer and fewer dollars for the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides billions of dollars to states for roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects.
The result: A years-long funding deficit for a transportation infrastructure that’s falling apart. Federal spending on highways is about $50 billion annually, but the gasoline tax generates only $34 billion.
That trust fund was set to expire July 31, but Congress passed yet another BandAid temporary funding measure to extend it through mid-November — the 34th time in the last six years they failed pass a long term transportation bill.
And the country’s roads and bridges just keep going to ruin.
Some creative funding was used in financing the just-passed House bill, including sales of oil from the nation’s emergency reserve and taking funds from the Federal Reserve’s surplus account — tactics many members termed objectionable, as did the Fed.
Supporters of the Export-Import Bank, which within limitations can provide financing for some U.S. ag exports, were able to kill amendments by those attempting to defeat its reauthorization.
The Senate, in the summer, had passed its own transportation bill, which was superseded by the temporary measure. It, too, provided funding for only three of the six years the measure covered. The two bodies will now have to work out an agreement on final legislation.
(Last Friday, Congress extended the current highway bill — for the 15th time — to buy more time to complete the infrastructure package and get it to the president. The extension was for two weeks, and members say they’re confident they’ll get things worked out and send the bill to the president in early December.)