|Inhofe concedes that all funding is not yet assured. (Photo courtesy of office of Sen. James Inhofe)|
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has approved a six-year highway funding bill, which its backers say provides $255 billion for highways, that would be the central component of a successor to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. But the legislation, which the panel cleared on Nov. 12 by a 17-2 vote, has some holes. The biggest is that lawmakers haven't yet found enough revenue to cover the bill's price tag.
Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that "nobody got everything they wanted, but it is a very good bill, and will only improve as the process moves on." The bill is said to provide $255 billion for highways, up more than 30% from TEA-21s leve. But Inhofe added, "At this stage of the process, there are insufficient revenues going into the Highway Trust Fund to support this level of funding."
Because of the funding gap, Inhofe said the committee's bill omits some important provisions, including a minimum funding guarantee to states and TEA-21's budget "firewall," which ensures that trust fund revenue collected is spent on transportation projects.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who with Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) voted against the bill in committee, wanted to see a state-by-state breakdown of the bill's highway funding. Those "distribution tables" have been the key documents in the past several highway bills, because they allow lawmakers to see how their states' funding totals compare with each other and with the amounts received under the current law. Inhofe did provide each Senator with his or her state's total, but not the national table or the formula to be used for dividing the funding pie among the states,.
He said, "We're not going to discuss the formula today because it's not in the bill." He said that information would be available at a "members-only" committee session in late January.
Another major issue is how much aid states receive compared with the amount of user fees their motorists pay into the trust fund. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), chairman of the transportation and infrastructure subcommittee, said that under the new bill, "donor states"--who pay more user fees than they get back in road funds--would be guaranteed up to a 95% return on their user fee contributions. TEA-21 guarantees at least a 90.5% return.
Bond also said that the "donee states"--which get more than a 100% return on their user fee payments--would get at least 10% more highway aid with the new bill than they do now.
The legislation clearly is a work in progress: Inhofe and the committee's ranking minority member, James Jeffords (I-Vt.), agreed to more than 60 amendments before the committee's session began. The panel also approved several more amendments during the "markup." Among the more significant ones approved was one offered by John Warner (R-Va.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) that would set aside $958 million in highway aid over six years to deal with stormwater runoff from roads. It passed by a 10-9 vote.
In the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders have been pushing for a $375-billion plan, though they haven't introduced a bill yet. Of that total, the House panel is expected to recommend about $300 billion for highways and most of the rest for mass transit. In the Senate, the environment committee only has jurisdiction over highways; the banking committee oversees transit and that panel hasn't set its recommendations yet.