With President Obama set to visit New York's Tappan Zee Bridge on Wednesday to draw attention to the nation's pressing infrastructure needs, a Senate panel is planning to finalize legislation Thursday to authorize more spending for transportation projects.
But where the funding will come from remains a six-year, $100 billion question still to be addressed.
Federal payments to states for as many as 6,000 road and transit projects could grind to a halt this summer to keep the Highway Trust Fund's balance above zero, as required by law. There are estimates that as many as 700,000 jobs would be lost over a year.
"The moment is dire," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday at a Bloomberg Government event in Washington, as recounted by Bloomberg Businessweek. The trust fund, Foxx said, "is quickly running toward insolvency."
While Congress in this midterm election year so far has done little to address the shortfall and inability of the highway fund to keep pace with costs, in recent days there has finally been some legislative movement.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Monday night unveiled what it called bipartisan legislation to authorize another six years of highway projects. The bill is to be marked up Thursday by Sen. Barbara Boxer's panel; it calls for funding improvements to the nation's federal-aid highway programs at current levels plus inflation.
The measure would maintain current formulas and would increase annually the amounts each state receives for the fiscal year. In all, spending on highway programs would come to $38.44 billion in 2015 and rise to $42.59 billion by 2020.
Amendments from some members are anticipated during the markup — including perhaps some dealing with specific ideas on how to pay for the fund. A blog appearing Tuesday on the conservative site Heritage.org criticized the Senate bill as reducing flexibility for the states in how they spend gas-tax dollars, and said the bill continues Congress's "habit of increasing spending when the money is not there, which is one reason why the Highway Trust Fund is nearly depleted."
But legislative aides note it is formally up to another panel — the Senate Finance Committee — to devise those funding mechanisms. And the rub is that there is still no consensus on how to do that.
In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hasn't yet produced a companion bill, and Chairman Bill Shuster does not expect it will do so until later this spring or summer. But Republicans led by Shuster and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor already have ruled out any move to raise tolls or taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, which no longer provide enough funding.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden also has questioned the idea of new tolls on existing roads, or such things as charging motorists based on the miles they drive. He also says temporary fixes or emergency patches are not the answer, either, and that it will take up to $100 billion just to keep the trust fund solvent for the next six years.
Even a short-term fix will require $10 billion to keep the fund solvent through the calendar year, says Wyden, and getting through fiscal 2015 will take another $8 billion. One idea that he has floated is a resurrection of the Build America Bonds program that was part of the stimulus strategy in 2009. By the time the program ended after two years, he said, it had helped finance more than $180 billion worth of projects from one end of America to the other.
In his remarks Tuesday at the Bloomberg event, Foxx noted that the administration has proposed a four-year, $302 billion package that would raise some of that money by closing some corporate tax breaks. Congressional reaction has been lukewarm.
"This is a big problem for the country and we've got to deal with it," Foxx said.
Meanwhile, when Obama appears and speaks Wednesday at the Tappan Zee Bridge, he will hammer home that the federal funding for road and infrastructure could soon be depleted — right in the middle of the summer construction season.