Moving to avoid harming federal highway and transit programs, the House and Senate have approved a measure to keep funds flowing for about three weeks. President Obama signed the bill into law on Oct. 29, hours before the previous authorization was to expire.
The new stopgap, which also gives railroads three more years to install new train-control systems, cleared the House on Oct. 27 and the Senate the following day. Those votes came less than a week after a key committee moved closer toward reaching the construction industry's bigger goal, approving a measure authorizing an estimated $325 billion over six years for surface transportation programs.
But that long-term measure, which the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved unanimously on Oct. 22, is only expected to include three years of actual funding. And even that hinges on action by the Ways and Means Committee.
The committee said that multi-year bill would provide $325 billion from the Highway Trust Fund. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association estimates the total is about $14 billion higher, counting the bill's funding for public transit from the general fund.
The bill’s sponsor, transportation panel Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), told reporters after the committee’s long drafting session that the measure probably wouldn’t move to the House floor until Ways and Means produced its revenue title.
Based on an Oct. 21 Congressional Budget Office estimate, it would take a minimum of $27 billion in new revenue to keep the trust fund out of the red for the next three years.
Shuster said that the timing of a floor vote on the bill—titled the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act—could happen during the week of Nov. 1, but, in any case, he added, "I believe it’ll be in short order.”
The panel’s top Democrat, Peter DeFazio (Ore.), noted that finding the needed revenue is important. “Remember, if we pass this bill and the revenue isn’t forthcoming, the Highway Trust Fund goes belly up in the very near future.”
The Dept. of Transportation has projected that, without new revenue, the trust fund will hit a critical point by Nov. 20.
If Ways and Means finds the money and the full House clears the overall package, the next step would be negotiations with the Senate, which approved a $350-billion, six-year plan on July 30. It, too, only includes three years’ funding.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement, “Both the Senate and the House bills have many similarities that will allow for a very short conference period.”
Inhofe added, “With this milestone, Congress should be able to send a bill to the president’s desk by Thanksgiving.”
Shuster said in an Oct. 26 statement that the extension "will allow the [long-term] highway bill process to continue moving forrward without shutting down transportation programs and projects across the country."
Transportation and construction officials were pleased to see the House committee's action on a multi-year bill, but had been lobbying for much higher funding.
Thomas W. Smith III, American Society of Civil Engineers executive director, said in a statement, “While it does not make the significant investment increase needed to address our aging roads, bridges and transit systems, the STRR Act would provide states with greater certainty that the federal government is a trusted partner in transportation.”
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx “It is good to see further bipartisan efforts to push through a surface transportation bill.”
But Foxx, who has been pushing for the $478-billion, six-year proposal the Obama administration rolled out early this year, added, “Congress should be thinking big, not continuing the status quo.”
At this stage of the game, however, it looks like a final compromise bill will have just three years’ funding and a modest funding hike over current levels.
During a meeting that spanned more than five hours, the committee voted on few of the dozens of amendments that were proposed. Only a handful were approved.
Following the legislative choreography, most amendment sponsors got a chance to speak about their riders, but then withdrew them. That won them Shuster’s thanks, letting him pushing ahead through the many proposals on the docket.
The movement on the transportation bill comes at a time of major change in the House Republican leadership.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) stepped down from that post on Oct. 29, when Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was elected to succeed him. Ryan has been the central House player in the search for trust-fund revenue.
Shuster says Boehner and Ryan realize that finishing the transportation bill “is one of those issues that has to get solved before the end of the year.”
Highway and transit funding and policy are at the heart of the bill. But it also included a provision giving commuter and freight railroads three more years to install positive train control (PTC) systems.
Committee leaders later decided to attach the train-control provision to the three-week highway-transit extension.
Nearly all railroads have said that they wouldn't be able to meet the previous Dec. 31 deadline for the PTC systems. Freight and commuter lines pushed hard to convince Congress to give them more time, contending that without an extension, they would be forced to curtail service.
Along with the three-year extension for installing the needed equipment, the stopgap measure allows rail lines an additional two years to get their new systems fully certified and operational.
Shuster noted that railroads said they needed a PTC decision from Congress by the end of October, or else they would have to start notifying their customers about a possible service shutdown.