A Senate floor vote on another temporary fix for the weakening Highway Trust Fund almost surely will come by Aug. 1 when Congress begins a month-long recess.
The basic bill before the Senate is a $10.8-billion "patch," which the House passed on July 15. That will be enough money to keep the trust fund in the black through next May.
If a "fix" is enacted, it would avert a slowdown in federal funding reimbursements to state highway agencies that the U.S. Dept. of Transportation says will begin in August.
Without that stretch-out in reimbursements, DOT projects that the trust fund's highway account will fall into a deficit around the end of August.
Several amendments to the House-passed bill also are pending on the Senate floor, including one that construction and transportation industry officials strongly support because it would press lawmakers to take action by the end of the year on a long-term surface-transportation bill.
But the industry officials say the floor vote on the trust-fund bill could be one of the last measures, or even the final one, that Congress takes up before lawmakers start their break on Aug. 1. If so, that makes it less and less likely that the amendments will pass.
Here are the proposed amendments and their sponsors:
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah): This is the trust-fund fix that the Senate Finance Committee cleared on July 10. (Hatch is that panel's chairman; Hatch is its top GOP member.) The bill would transfer $10.8 billion to the trust fund but its revenue-raising sources differ from the ones the House bill uses. Another key difference is that the Senate Finance version doesn't reauthorize the highway and transit programs beyond Sept. 30. The House bill reauthorizes the programs through May.
Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.): This proposal would trim the trust-fund infusion to about $8 billion, which would keep the fund healthy only through December. The plan also would reauthorize surface-transportation programs through Dec. 19. Carper, Corker and Boxer feel that the short end point should put pressure on Congress to act by the end of the year on what construction industry groups most want: a long-term highway-transit bill.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah): This amendment would slash the federal gasoline tax over five years to 3.7¢ per gallon, from the current 18.4¢ and shift most of the highway program responsibilities to the states. Lee said: "Under this new system, Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached."
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.): This proposal would exempt repairs to storm-damaged highway and transit infrastructure from federal environmental reviews. Toomey said: "To get help quickly to [natural-disaster] victims, states and municipalities should be able to make essential infrastructure-based repairs without having to navigate excessive red tape."
Any of the amendments will require 60 Senate votes to pass. Dave Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for government affairs, notes, "Sixty votes is a high threshold."
Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association senior vice president for government and regulatory affairs, says, "The closer you get to the date that [Congress is] going to leave, the harder it is going to be to get those 60 votes."
Greg Cohen, American Highway Users Alliance president and CEO, says that his group supports the Carper-Corker-Boxer proposal. He says, "We want to keep the pressure on Congress to address the Highway Trust Fund's problem in a more sustainable, long-term way."
Whitted says, "We just are afraid that if you take the pressure off, [legislators are] going to consider that they have...dealt with this and we're going to get to May and we're going to have the same kind of funding crisis that we have now and that nothing will have changed."
Bauer also says, "We prefer Wyden-Hatch over the House-passed bill because it actually raises revenues. It's not all general-fund transfers."
He's referring to Wyden-Hatch provisions to draw revenue from increased tax compliance. Bauer says that raising more revenue is "the only path that we can see to getting out of this cycle of continual trust-fund patches and resulting crises when the patch runs dry."
The highway users alliance, ARTBA and NSSGA oppose the Lee amendment. Cohen says, "We support a strong federal program."
Whitted says the amendment would amount to a "devolution" of the highway program to the states. "That's not good," she says
Bauer says that the Lee plan would result in "a big cut in investment. It cuts investment unless a state steps up to fill the void." He adds, "My read of the the Constitution is that the feds can't require the states to pass any specific laws."
NSSGA supports the Toomey amendment.
But the start of the recess is drawing near. Cohen says, "I think it's an uphill battle for those who want anything other than the House proposal."
But he adds, "Even if it is the House proposal [that passes this week], we are becoming more hopeful about the opportunities next year."
Whitted says: "We continue to hear from members who are in leadership on both sides that...if indeed [the House version] passes and funds the program through May that there's nothing to prevent them from going forward to work on a long-term funding solution and measure. That's positive."