Pushing right up to the verge of an Aug. 1 deadline, the Senate has agreed to a House-passed $10.8-billion rescue plan for the ailing Highway Trust Fund, sending the measure to President Obama for his expected signature.
The Senate's 81-13 vote late on July 31 ended a struggle between the two chambers and averted a slowdown in federal road aid and, potentially, in highway and bridge projects.
The $10.8-billion bill, which the House had approved on July 15, provides enough money to keep the trust fund in the black through May 2015 and also reauthorizes highway and transit programs until that time.
Construction and transportation officials were thankful Congress acted in time to avoid a trust-fund crisis but also called for lawmakers to move much sooner than May to find revenue to shore up the fund for at least several years.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement, "The good news is that Congress has avoided bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund. The bad news is that there is still no long-term certainty, and this latest Band-Aid expires right as the next construction season begins."
Pete Ruane, American Road & Transportation Builders Association president and CEO, commended the House and Senate for keeping highway dollars flowing. But he added, "We want to be clear ... that we find no reason for anyone to celebrate what amounts to a last-minute, first-down pass."
Industry groups had preferred an $8.1-billion trust-fund fix the Senate had approved on July 29. That measure would have carried the fund only through Dec. 31 and reauthorized surface-transportation programs through Dec. 19.
By creating the short reprieve for the trust fund, the Senate proposal's sponsors—Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)—sought to force action in December on a long-term highway-transit bill. That multi-year measure has been industry groups' ultimate goal.
But in a July 31 afternoon vote, the House rejected the Senate version by a 272-150 vote and sent the $10.8-billion legislation back to the Senate. That action led the Senate to accept the House measure in a vote several hours later.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), speaking on the chamber's floor before the afternoon vote, said that sending the earlier House bill back to the Senate wouldn't preclude Congress from working on a long-term surface-transportation measure. He said such legislation is "a top priority" for his committee.
ARTBA's Ruane said, "It is incumbent on the Congress to now focus full bore on the end zone: enacting a long-term, sustainable revenue solution for the Highway Trust Fund before the end of this year."
Congress needed to pass a “fix” of some length for the trust fund by Aug. 1, when lawmakers start a five-week recess. If new money had not been poured into the fund, the Dept. of Transportation projected the fund’s highway account would slip into a deficit some time around the end of August.
In July, DOT had warned that, absent a trust-fund revenue patch, it would start procedures on Aug. 1 to conserve its cash. It planned to shift from "same day" reimbursements to state highway agencies to twice-a-month payments, with the first of those allocations to go out on Aug. 11.
Bud Wright, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director, said that if Congress hadn't acted to refill the trust fund, more than 600,000 jobs and at least 6,000 construction projects around the country would have been threatened.
After the House's afternoon vote, Dennis Slater, Association of Equipment Manufacturers president, said the congressional action showed lawmakers didn't want to shut down the highway program.
But Slater added, "The mere fact that lawmakers punted—instead of summoning the courage to craft a long-term, sustainably financed solution to the Highway Trust Fund [problem]—is perfectly emblematic of this Congress."
Terry O'Sullivan, Laborers' International Union of North America general president, said in a statement, "Sadly, some Washington politicians want to stick their heads in the sand, avoid this debate as long as possible and continue to pretend that the status quo is acceptable. "
He said, "Wait until next May and another construction season will be lost, more construction workers will sit idle, and our bridges will continue to fall down."
Foxx said he will hold a "nationwide virtual town hall" in August about transportation, including participants from business, state and local governments and "everyday Americans" as part of an effort to find a long-range answer to infrastructure's future challenges.