The drive for a new federal surface-transportation bill has shifted into a higher gear with President Obama's new $302-billion, four-year proposal and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp's proposed tax-code overhaul that includes $126.5 billion over eight years to shore up the faltering Highway Trust Fund.
Construction industry and state transportation officials, deeply worried Congress won't avert a projected summertime trust-fund insolvency, welcomed the Obama and Camp plans, both released on Feb. 26. Obama's proposal, unveiled in a speech at the St. Paul, Minn., Union Depot rail station, includes $199 billion for highway work, $72 billion for transit and $19 billion for passenger rail.
But industry and state officials were quick to add that the hopeful signs must be turned into concrete legislation and enacted in very short order.
Deadlines are no more than seven months ahead. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says the trust fund's highway account could slide into the red as early as August. Moreover, the current highway-transit authorization, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), lapses on Sept. 30.
All sides know the key to the post-MAP-21 bill is erasing the trust-fund shortfall, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates at a cumulative $61 billion over the next four years. Obama's plan would add $150 billion to the trust fund and boost surface-transportation spending by almost $90 billion over current projections, the White House says.
Obama would draw the $150 billion from corporate tax changes, possibly in how companies' foreign income is treated. Camp's trust-fund infusion would come from a similar corporate tax modification. "We're ... in the same ZIP code," Foxx told an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' meeting in Washington on Feb. 27.
But that envisioned tax change may end up in the dead-letter office. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), asked about Camp's overall tax plan at a Feb. 26 press conference, inauspiciously termed it only "the beginning of the conversation" about tax reform.
Other key lawmakers are pressing ahead on important non-revenue parts of a MAP-21 successor. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) aims to have the highway-policy part of an expected package ready for her panel in April. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) told AASHTO members he hopes to have his panel vote in spring or summer on a highway and transit policy measure.
But to complete the legislative package, it will be up to Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee to find the billions of dollars the trust fund needs.
If the debate drags into late summer and the trust-fund balance falls, the Federal Highway Administration may postpone the day of reckoning by slowing its reimbursements to states for their highway-project outlays.