Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx continues to urge House and Senate negotiators to “go big,” as they seek to work out differences between the multi-year highway-transit measures each chamber passed earlier this year.
For construction industry firms, the central questions are how much money will be in the final package and how many years will it cover?
Foxx told reporters in a briefing at DOT headquarters on Nov. 24, “I think Congress needs to push as hard as they can for the longest possible bill and the highest amount of annual outlays they can get because the system has been starving for it.”
The Senate-passed bill authorizes about $350 billion over six years, but only has enough real funding for three years. The House’s version authorizes an estimated $335 billion-plus and, at first, also had just three years’ funding.
But in the final stages of floor debate, the House added an amendment to increase its funding by a net $40 billion. That would allow its authorizations to be fully funded for perhaps five years.
Asked whether that $40 billion is in any jeopardy of being dropped from the final bill, Foxx said, “The indications that I have [are] that folks are trying to hold on to that number, although some of the inputs to that number may change.” Those “inputs” apparently would be the types of revenue mechanisms that would raise that amount of money.
He added, that there also are “some conversations about six years versus five years.” Annual installments obviously would be larger when spread over five years rather than six.
But Foxx also said, “I think it’s a false choice to choose between time and resources….”
He said that if a new transportation bill’s funding were held to current levels and, as a result, some regions “would be so overrun with congestion that [conditions] would start threatening commerce and quality of life, you’d think that we would push the emergency button now and do something about it.”
Even if the final version adopts the House figures for five or six years, the annual increases would be modest—less than 2% a year for highway obligations and for transit funding. The Senate bill’s annual increases are 3% for highways and 3.8% for transit.
The measures have gone through months of drafting, committee and floor action. State transportation officials and engineering and construction firms have labored under the uncertainty caused by five short extensions in just the past 14 months.
Now, Foxx said, “It looks like we may be on the cusp of getting a long-term surface transportation bill done.”
If a deal is struck and the enacted bill has more than three years of funding, it would be the longest highway-transit authorization since 2005, when the five-year SAFETEA-LU went on the books.
But Foxx also said, “I don’t want to declare a victory before a victory. There’s still a lot of time to screw this up.”
The DOT secretary has been making the argument for months that what’s needed is a well-funded measure; not only to ease current congestion but also to begin to meet transportation needs in years to come. “I continue to urge Congress to go big because that’s what’s going to help us step boldly into the future,” he said.
Foxx noted, “If you’re going to go through the brain damage of a long-term bill you might as well make it worthwhile.”