WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to continue transportation programs for six years with no significant increase in spending, reported the Associated Press.
The bill, approved 363 to 64 with wide bipartisan support, authorizes $325 billion in spending through the 2021 federal budget year. But the bill provides only enough money to pay for the first three years because lawmakers were unable to settle on a politically acceptable way to pay for it all. The bill would continue current rates of spending adjusted for inflation.
Most lawmakers lauded the bill as a major accomplishment because it would assure states and local communities that they can count on federal highway and transit aid for at least three years.
Since 2008, the federal Highway Trust Fund has been in danger of bankruptcy. Congress has been unwilling to raise the federal 18.4-cents-per-gallon gasoline and 24.4-cents-per-gallon diesel taxes. The fuel taxes, the trust fund’s main source of revenue, were last raised in 1993. Transportation aid has continued through dozens of short-term extensions and transfers of money from the general treasury to make up the gap between revenues and spending.
The bill is similar to a transportation bill passed by the Senate in July. Congressional leaders said they hope to work out the differences between the two measures and send President Barack Obama a final bill before Thanksgiving, said the report. They also said they hope to find the money to pay for the last three years of the bill, but offered no details on how that might happen.
The measure is filled with changes to transportation policy that reflect the small-government, pro-business philosophy of the House Republican majority, AP said. But it is also a compromise that Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) spent months negotiating with Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). As a result, the bill also includes many provisions sought by Democrats or supported by lawmakers from both parties, the news agency said, and avoids some of the most divisive proposals.
Lawmakers debated more than 100 amendments on the House floor over two days. GOP leaders blocked a proposal by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to raise the gas tax.
Even maintaining status-quo spending on transportation requires Congress to raise more revenue or cut spending elsewhere, said the report.
One provision assumes $9.1 billion can be raised by selling oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) at $89 per barrel, about twice the current price.
The National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO) commended the House for approving the long-term plan for the nation’s highways. It expressed concern, however, with a provision of the House Surface Transportation Reauthorization & Reform Act of 2015 (STRRA) that would amend the interstate tolling pilot program.
“We appreciate the House’s commitment to moving forward a multi-year bill and urge the House and the Senate to work quickly to finalize legislation before the November 20 expiration of current highway spending authorization,” said NATSO president and CEO Lisa Mullings. “However, we don’t support tolling on existing interstates. Tolling existing interstates is not a viable method of funding transportation projects. Tolls are an inefficient, counter-productive means of raising revenue for the nation’s highways that jeopardize the safety of the traveling public. In the interest of building a safer, more efficient infrastructure network, the tolling pilot program ultimately should be repealed in its entirety.”