Senate to Take Action on Highways 07/30 06:24
The Senate delivered an unexpectedly strong vote Tuesday in favor of taking
action later this year to resolve the chronic funding problems that have
bedeviled highway and transit programs, a sign that Congress may have reached
the limit of its patience with short-term fixes.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate delivered an unexpectedly strong vote Tuesday
in favor of taking action later this year to resolve the chronic funding
problems that have bedeviled highway and transit programs, a sign that Congress
may have reached the limit of its patience with short-term fixes.
The bill, which passed 79 to 18, provides $8.1 billion to keep the federal
Highway Trust Fund --- the chief source of highway and transit aid to states
--- solvent through December. That's enough time, supporters said, for Congress
to return to work after the November election, when partisan fervor will have
cooled, and make the politically difficult decisions on whether to raise
federal gas taxes or find some other means to shore up the fund.
The House passed a bill last week that would provide $10.8 billion to keep
transportation aid flowing to states through May of next year, with GOP leaders
saying more time is needed to deal with the issue. But the Senate rejected that
plan in favor of a short-term patch now while setting up a showdown on the
matter later this year.
"The Senate has now made a clear and undeniable statement in favor of action
on a long-term transportation bill in this Congress," declared Sen. Tom Carper,
D-Del., one of three lead sponsors of the bill passed by the Senate. But he
also cautioned, "We have a lot of work in front of us to strike the principled
compromise that will be needed to pass" a long-term bill.
The trust fund is in its current straits because the federal
18.4-cent-a-gallon gas tax and the 24.4-cent-a-gallon diesel tax--- the fund's
chief sources of revenue --- haven't been increased in more than 20 years,
while the cost of maintaining and expanding the nation's aging infrastructure
has gone up. The fuel efficiency of cars and trucks is also increasing while
people are driving less per capita.
By Friday the trust fund will no longer have enough money to cover promised
aid to states, the Transportation Department says, and the government will
begin to stretch out payments. States have been warned to expect an average
reduction of 28 percent in aid payments.
Without action from Congress, the balance in the fund was expected to drop
to zero by late August or early September. Separately, the government's
authority to spend money on transportation programs expires Oct. 1. Some states
already have cut back on construction projects because of uncertainty over
federal funding, and President Barack Obama and state and local officials have
complained that the uncertainty over funding is costing jobs.
Before the Senate vote, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned that if
the Senate made changes to the House bill, the House would strip out the
changes and resend their original bill back to the Senate. Whether or not that
happens, lawmakers said a highway funding bill is still expected to clear
Congress before the House and Senate adjourn for the summer later this week.
"We won't let the clock run out on transportation funding," said Senate
Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Three blue-ribbon commissions have called for raising fuel taxes to pay for
a mounting backlog of transportation projects, but Congress has avoided doing
that in part because it's often unpopular and politically risky. Former
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both ran into political trouble
when they signed federal deficit reduction measures that increased gas taxes.
There are other possible ways to pay for highway and transit programs, but
so far none that appears to have broad political appeal.