Leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee—two Democrats and two Republicans—have taken the first major action this year toward passing a long-delayed multiyear surface transportation bill. Industry officials welcomed the May 25 announcement that the four lawmakers had agreed on a framework for a $339.2-billion highway-transit measure that could stretch to as long as six years.

But the plan is a long way from getting enacted. The senators haven’t lined up firm sources for all the funding, and a not-yet-introduced House version may well come in far south of $339 billion.

Construction officials praised the milestone proposal, announced by the committee’s “Big Four” on highway issues: Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), ranking Republican James Inhofe (Okla.), transportation and infrastructure subcommittee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the subcommittee’s top GOP member, David Vitter (La.).

“This is big progress,” says Jay Hansen, the National Asphalt Pavement Association vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs. “It’s a sign of hope for the industry that this legislation can get done.”

Cathy Connor, Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president, adds, “It’s a great first step. Obviously, there are still a lot of details to be filled in. I think the thing I found most encouraging was the fact that they’re working on a bipartisan basis.”

July 4 Timetable

Boxer hopes to release a detailed bill in the coming weeks and have her panel vote on it by the July 4 recess. Then, other committees will add transit, safety and finance titles. Floor approval may rest on whether most senators think the bill allocates enough money to their states. At $339.2 billion, the new proposal, which funds highway, transit and safety programs, represents an 18% increase over the last long-term measure, the six-year $286.5-billion Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), enacted in 2005.

The senators’ plan is far short of the White House’s $555.9-billion, six-year outline released in February, but the White House plan includes $86 billion for passenger rail, an infrastructure bank and aviation.

Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, says the Big Four are “laying out a strong marker—it looks like—with which to negotiate with the House.”

Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies’ vice president for government affairs, says, “I think it’s important that the Senate come out as aggressively as possible, particularly with the funding number, knowing that the House is probably going to come in considerably lower than that.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) has been working on a bill for months but has not yet unveiled it. “It’s encouraging to see the Senate moving forward,” says Mica spokesman Justin Harclerode.

“The House will continue to develop a multiyear, fiscally responsible bill that works within the parameters of the Highway Trust Fund and considers other tools to help maximize the potential of our limited resources,” Harclerode adds.

Boxer says the Big Four’s framework reflects current highway and transit funding levels, plus inflation. The big problem is the trust fund isn’t healthy enough to support a $339.2-billion bill. The Congressional Budget Office pegs trust-fund revenue and interest at $232.5 billion over the next six years. CBO also projects the trust fund’s highway account will fall into the red sometime in 2012, either in late summer or early fall.

The senators did not say how they plan to get the additional $100 billion to fully finance their proposal. Boxer says those issues will be up to the Finance Committee, which Baucus chairs.

One obvious revenue-raiser—a hike in the 18.4¢-per-gallon federal gasoline tax—looks dead on arrival. Boxer, Mica and the White House as well as anti-tax organizations have voiced their opposition to a gas-tax increase.