The U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee has launched its effort to draft a new highway bill with vows to work out political differences in order to restore the health of the nation’s infrastructure.
At a hearing Wednesday, committee members and witnesses, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, agreed that the federal highway program is once again in crisis.
Funding for the program expires at the end of May, which coincidentally is the beginning of construction season in many states.
That means Congress must act quickly. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said the bill must be done by March or April.
Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said at the Wednesday hearing that states have already begun delaying big road projects for fear that Congress will not find the money for a multi-year program.
“This is a crisis that is actually worse than most people realize,” Foxx said. “State departments of transportation are having to plan work for a season that starts as the money runs out.”
The current 10-month extension is the 32nd short-term funding patch of the past six years, Foxx said.
“This process is literally killing [the states’] will to build,” he said.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the committee, promised Foxx that a bill would be done. “You’re going to be in on the kill and we’re going to do it together,” he said.
The EPW Committee is responsible for governance of the highway program and the hearing focused on policy reforms that can make highway projects more efficient and less expensive.
Foxx said, for example, that thanks to provisions in the last highway bill, MAP 21, DOT has been able to speed up the permitting process by using concurrent reviews. It needs Congress to give it additional such tools in the next bill, he said.
He also said he sees promise in new ways to use public private partnerships for financing. Pennsylvania, for instance, has been able to attract private investors for bridge rehabilitation by pooling some 500 bridges rather than taking each as an individual project.
The committee does not have jurisdiction over funding – that’s the job of the Senate Finance Committee – but any discussion of highways always includes the subject of money.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said Congress needs to go around the funding ideas that are politically impossible and look for solutions that have common support.
He said that raising fuel taxes to increase revenues to the Highway Trust Fund – the preferred solution of some in Congress, the trucking industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – is only realistic if it is offset by tax cuts to ease the burden on the middle class.
But, to illustrate the difficulty of finding common ground, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., observed that this approach would increase the budget deficit.
Much will depend on the states working their political will on Congress.
States need funding certainty, said Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. “Certainty allows governors the ability to plan and execute long-term projects,” he said.
Inhofe’s message: “It will be necessary to have a lot of pressure from states to get this through.”
Meanwhile, highway proposals are starting to come in.
Carper said he will soon reintroduce legislation to raise the fuel tax and index it to inflation.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., has introduced a bill calling for $1 trillion in infrastructure reinvestment. He did not discuss how to pay for the bill.
Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., on Wednesday said he will introduce a bill, the Bipartisan Infrastructure 2.0 Act, that would use corporate tax reform to patch the Highway Trust Fund for six years.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., would replace the 35% tax rate on overseas earnings with an 8.75% rate. By encouraging repatriation of this money, this approach would generate $120 billion for the Highway Trust Fund, Delaney said in a statement.
His bill also sets an 18-month deadline for international tax reform, and would create a bipartisan House-Senate commission charged with creating long-term solvency for the Highway Trust Fund.