With highway and transit authorizations set to expire at the end of May, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan says he is working with other key lawmakers on another short "patch" of about $10 billion to keep the HIghway Trust Fund in the black through December.
Ryan, who became Ways and Means Chairman earlier this year, also says he is focused on helping to craft a multi-year surface transportation bill. But the Wisconsin Republican and all of the other major legislative players know Congress faces an imminent problem: the current authorization—itself a 10-month patch—will lapse within a few weeks.
Speaking on April 30 at a Christian Science Monitor's breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C., Ryan said that he, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) "are just beginning to figure out the short-term patch."
(Comments come from a transcript of Ryan's remarks provided to ENR.)
Ryan cautioned, "That's the current plan—this can change—because of planning purposes."
But Ryan also said he also is working on something bigger: "Our goal is to get a six-year bill," he said.
Such a measure would require several times $10 billion in revenue. The search for that money has led some to zero in on the tax revenue to be gained by getting U.S. corporations to repatriate their overseas earnings.
Ryan indicated he's against a stand-alone repatriation plan. He said that "the only way repatriation works is if it is part of permanent [tax] reform."
He rejected the idea of a one-time tax "holiday" on U.S. companies' foreign income and said the solution would require "reforming our international rules."
He said that lawmakers would try to work out such a reform plan with the Obama administration.
Ryan added, "If we don't get repatriation because we don't get a tax reform package, then we're going to have to do something like MAP-21 times three." The 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress for the 21st Century Act included an $18.8-billion general-fund infusion to prop up the trust fund."
Ryan didn't say where the revenue for a multi-year transportation bill would come from, except to rule out one option: "We're not going to raise gas taxes," he said.
Hatch agrees with Ryan on gas taxes, a Finance Committee spokesman said. The Finance Chairman added in a statement that, in his committee, "bipartisan tax working groups are examining whether Congress can establish a sound financial structure for the Highway Trust Fund as a part of tax reform."
Hatch also said, "However, as the deadline for highway funding nears, we must examine all workable options, including eliminating low-priority spending, to ensure uninterrupted service to the nation's highway programs."
For Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx—and nearly all transportation construction and engineering executives and state officials—the true target is a bill that will stretch for six years.
Foxx told a group of reporters, including me, in an April 28 briefing that he still wants a long-term measure. But he also indicated he could go along with a "purposeful extension." He explained that would be a stopgap while lawmakers "are seriously trying to come up with a long-term solution, get us a longer-term bill to grow the investment and to create sensible policy for the 21st century."
Foxx added, "But if it's an extension for extension's sake, that's not a good idea, because it's going to continue to freeze and immobilize state departments of transportation that are trying to find resources to get projects done...."
He said, "We've already had six states pull back close to $2 billion [in highway projects] and I expect that you'll see more states pulling back projects because of the federal funding uncertainties."
(A tip of my hat to the Detroit News, which reported on Ryan's statements, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, for flagging the story in its daily newsletter.)
Story headline corrected on May 4.