The House has approved a bill to extend federal highway and transit programs for the next six years. But the estimated $325-billion measure, which the House passed on Nov. 5 by a 363-64 vote, only includes enough funding for three years.
The bill's sponsor, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement that the measure will "give our infrastructure and our economy a much-needed shot in the arm."
Committee staff has said that the $325 billion includes an estimated $261 billion for highway construction, $55 billion for public transit and $9 billion for safety programs—all from the Highway Trust Fund The American Road & Transportation Builders Association says the bill also includes an additional $14 billion for transit from the general fund.
The next step for the legislation is a conference committee to resolve differences between the newly approved House bill and the $350-billion version that the Senate cleared on July 30. That Senate measure also only contains three years' funding.
Both bills' authorizations are only slightly larger than current levels. Moreover, because they only have three years' actual funding, lawmakers will have to find additional funding by Sept. 30, 2018, or face a shutdown of highway and transit programs.
House leaders moved quickly to get ready for the coming conference committee with the Senate, naming the members of their negotiating team within a couple of hours of the vote.
The lawmakers face a tight deadline: the current short-term highway-transit extension is set to expire on Nov. 20.
Two key Senators—Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and the committee's top Democrat, Barbara Boxer (Calif.)—said that the the House vote allows the legislation to move to the bicameral conference "and get this legislation to the President's desk by Thanksgiving."
Inhofe and Boxer, who are expected to be the Senate's lead conferees, said in a statement, "Businesses, labor, states, and local communities are depending on us to pass a consensus-based, bipartisan bill which provides funding certainty that will enable them to modernize our nation’s highways, bridges, and transit systems."
Transportation officials say the conferees will be hard-pressed to have a final compromise version approved by their chambers and ready to send to the White House by Nov. 20. But they do expect the new multi-year measure to be enacted by the end of December.
Construction industry and state transportation officials welcomed the progress toward a new multi-year bill.
Over the past 14 months, they have had to operate under a series of four short-term highway and transit stopgap authorizations. The uncertainty over timing and amounts of federal funding caused some states to cut back on highway contracts.
But Bud Wright, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director said in a statement after the House vote that the "momentum is there" to bring the transportation bill to completion.
The House transportation panel's ranking Democrat, Peter DeFazio (Ore.), said he was pleased that the chamber approved a six-year bill after years of "short-term Band-aids and extensions." He added, "Unfortunately, it doesn't provide the level of investment needed to repair or rebuild our aging 1950s-era system of roads, bridges and public transit systems."
But DeFazio noted that the measure includes a provision that would automatically allow increased spending on infrastructure after its third year if Congress adds more revenue to the trust fund than is now projected.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx welcomed the legislative progress, saying in a statement that "the long winter of uncertainty may finally be coming to an end."
But Foxx added, "At the funding levels proposed in both the House and Senate bills, the result will be more traffic." He urged lawmakers "to do more than minimum funding."
The bill also would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. for four years. The bank is open but its authority to issue new loans lapsed on June 30 when Congress failed to renew its charter.