The Senate committee in charge of highway legislation is getting ready for a push to pass a new authorization bill before the current stopgap runs out May 31.

Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) made the highway bill the subject of the panel's first hearing in the new Congress. ( View Webcast of hearing.)

At that hearing, held on Jan. 28, committee members heard from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx as well as two governors and a state DOT secretary about ideas for the new bill.

Inhofe made clear he doesn't want to pass another short-term extension. "We want to do it right this time," he said.

Witnesses and committee members covered familiar ground, but there was some news, too.
 
Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), former EPW Chair and now the panel's top Democrat, said that the Highway Trust Fund was getting "perilously close" to a deficit. But she also said current projections show the ailing Highway Trust Fund is not quite as badly off as had been predicted earlier.

Boxer said the fund's shortfall is now projected at $13 billion per year over six years, compared with an earlier estimate of $18 billion a year over that period. That will make lawmakers' trust-fund minimum new revenue target a bit less daunting.

And Foxx said DOT would be sending Congress a "new and improved" version of the Grow  America Act, a four-year $302-billion transportation package that the Obama administration proposed last year. Congress didn't warm to the proposal, however, and took no action on it.

Instead, it approved a 10-month $10.8-billion "patch" for the struggling trust fund, and extending the highway and transit programs through May 31 of this year.

After Foxx's appearance before the committee, he met with reporters outside the hearing room, and said the revised DOT bill would be out "soon and very soon."

He added, "We put a pretty substantial bill out last year. And we're doing some fine-tuning and we'll get it out as soon as we can."

Foxx said, "We feel very strongly that the system needs an injection of a substantial amount of money to make the system work and we think it can be paired with a project-delivery model that emphasizes concurrent reviews that will get projects done faster and give us bigger bang for the bucks."

Indeed, speeding up environmental reviews was a recurring topic during the hearing. The 2012 MAP-21 highway-transit law included steps to expedite such reviews. But some lawmakers seemed to want to speed up the process even more.

Foxx appeared to be amenable to that idea. He told the committee that DOT would like to make more use of having multiple federal agencies review transportation projects concurrently and not one after another.

The idea, Foxx said, would be to use concurrent reviews "on a more routine basis, and it's not just [on] some of the high-profile, big-dollar projects but it could on a more routine basis for virtually all projects."

After the hearing, Inhofe told reporters that the highway measure "does have priority" over other issues.

But he declined to say when he would introduce a bill. "I can't tell you exactly what is going to be done now and month by month," Inhofe said, but he added, "We have to get the end product done in time."

Inhofe said, "One of the good things about this situation we're in is that we don't have the luxury of time. We've got May and that's it."

He did say that he is drafting a legislative proposal and is working closely with the House. "I feel optimistic about it," Inhofe said.

And it looks like the effort will be bipartisan. Boxer said during the hearing, "We're going to be working together here to get this done."

The trust fund's projected deficit is a prime factor motivating lawmakers to act on the legislation.

Boxer noted that Tennessee and Arkansas already have "delayed hundreds of millions of dollars in highway projects for this year."

Foxx said, "This is a crisis that is actually worse than I think most people reaiize." He added, "I predict that over the course of the next few months, you're going to see more state departments of transportation start to slow or stop projects because they don't know what's on the other side of May 31st."

DOT won't spend the trust-fund balance down to zero. It needs to keep a cushion of about $4 billion in the trust fund for highways.

Foxx said that if no new bill is enacted, "We will have to begin notifying states of cash-management procedures...towards the end of the spring. And that's going to be again a big problem. Frankly...it's already a big problem because state DOTs have to line up contracts and get work planned out."

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) said that having certainty about federal highway funding is essential.

Foxx told reporters: "The excuses that have led us to 32 short-term measures over the last six years, they have to stop. And...what I'm encouraged by is that on a bipartisan basis. we have folks that know we've got to do something and they want to figure this out, and my job is to help them."