Negotiators reach agreement on long-term highway bill

A joint committee of House-Senate negotiators has ironed out the differences in both chambers’ long-term highway bills, paving – pun absolutely intended – the way for both the House and Senate to approve a final version of the bill by the end of this week.

Transportation funding is set to expire Dec. 4. The new bill would extend transportation funding for five years and spend $305 billion on highway and transit projects.

It’s a significant achievement – Congress has been paying for the nation’s highways on a short-term, patchwork basis, passing short term extensions nearly 35 times since the last long-term comprehensive highway bill expired in 2009.

The bill pays for transportation funding through a variety of different streams, but the final compromise did not increase the 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax – which was last increased in 1993. The gas tax has traditionally been the main mechanism for paying for federal highway funding, though critics say increasingly fuel-efficient cars have diluted the impact of the tax and the tax has not kept up with inflation.

Advocates for transportation spending say a long-term bill is greatly needed: A 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found one out of every nine bridges is structurally deficient and 42 percent of the nation’s major urban highways are congested, costing the economy some $101 billion annually in wasted time and fuel.

Negotiators on the final bill included Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville.

“This bill would make more funds available to improve Ohio’s highways, repair its structurally deficient bridges, and our transit systems,” Brown said. “To keep America on top of the global economy, Congress must pass a long-term bill that invests in a world-class infrastructure.”

Among the provisions tucked in the bill is one requested by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would streamline and improve the federal permitting process. Portman pushed the measure with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. The duo argues the current process is far too complicated and uncertain, with businesses that want to undertake a major capital projects often having to go through a dozen separate agency approvals and reviews.

Portman’s measure would require a “lead agency” set a permitting timetable for each major capital project, would create a public, online site to track agency progress on required approvals and reviews of such projects and allow courts to consider the negative effects on jobs when deciding whether to block a project, among the reforms.

But the bill also includes a more controversial measure to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank – a  small export-promoting bank that diehard conservatives have tried to kill. The bank’s reauthorization expired last summer.

 

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