Are Public-Works Bills Lost in Traffic?

Action is still pending on transportation and waterways bills, and the clock is ticking.

The Manhattan Bridge is viewed from a park in Brooklyn that saw severe flooding during Hurricane Sandy on March 31, 2014 in New York City. A new report released Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that summarizes climate science, gave a dire picture of the earth's slow warming due to greenhouse gases and other human based behaviors. The report warned that countries and cities located along the coastline face a particular danger as the oceans continue to rise resulting in large scale flooding and erosion.
National Journal
Billy House
May 7, 2014, 4:48 p.m.

They are the nuts and bolts of gov­ern­ment re­spons­ib­il­ity: help­ing to provide for high­ways, bridges, canals, ports, and oth­er in­fra­struc­ture.

But the fed­er­al High­way Trust Fund is run­ning out of money, and so far there has been little ac­tion to deal with the loom­ing crisis. Mean­while, al­though both cham­bers passed wa­ter­way-pro­jects bills last year, a House-Sen­ate con­fer­ence set up in Novem­ber has yet to an­nounce a deal.

With a two-year budget agree­ment in place, many said law­makers would have time to at­tend to oth­er press­ing needs. But amid on­go­ing fights over Obama­care, Benghazi, the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice, and oth­er polit­ic­ally-charged is­sues, ba­sic pub­lic-works needs re­main un­re­solved.

There is talk this week — in­clud­ing from con­fer­ees them­selves — that a deal to re­con­cile the House and Sen­ate ver­sions of the first Wa­ter Re­sources De­vel­op­ment Act since 2007 could at last be an­nounced, per­haps with­in days. Whatever is un­veiled, however, could still be hit with res­ist­ance from some out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups, which ob­ject to the spend­ing and don’t be­lieve the bill’s re­forms go far enough.

“Ne­go­ti­ations take time,” said Jim Bil­li­mor­ia, a spokes­man for the House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee and its chair­man, Rep. Bill Shuster. The High­way Trust Fund is in more dire con­di­tion. Neither cham­ber has even passed a bill, and the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice says the fund’s bal­ances are al­most ex­hausted and fed­er­al pay­ments to states for pro­jects start­ing this sum­mer will have to be delayed. About one-quarter of the spend­ing in states and loc­al­it­ies for trans­port­a­tion and in­fra­struc­ture needs come from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

There is, however, a sense of ur­gency set­ting in. Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Box­er said this week that her com­mit­tee will soon be­gin mark­ing up a high­way bill that would set fund­ing at cur­rent levels, ad­jus­ted for in­fla­tion. Shuster has said he hopes to get a high­way bill marked up by spring or sum­mer.

“Many states have already an­nounced that they are post­pon­ing or can­celing crit­ic­al trans­port­a­tion pro­jects due to the fear that fed­er­al funds will be delayed or cut off. This will have a dom­ino ef­fect that will be felt throughout the eco­nomy,” Box­er warned in testi­mony Tues­day to the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee.

She ad­ded, “It is crit­ic­al for our na­tion to con­tin­ue in­vest­ing in our aging in­fra­struc­ture, and we must work to­geth­er to find the sweet spot for a de­pend­able, bi­par­tis­an source of fund­ing for the High­way Trust Fund.”

But how to pay for a new high­way bill re­mains the ma­jor ques­tion. And it will be a tough one for a Con­gress that will be away from Wash­ing­ton for large chunks of time the rest of this midterm-elec­tion year. Ad­ded dif­fi­culty will come as out­side groups like Club for Growth and Her­it­age Ac­tion per­sist in ar­guing that trans­port­a­tion au­thor­ity and fund­ing should be turned back to the states.

A CBO ex­pert said this week that in or­der to pay for a high­way bill, law­makers must either cut high­way spend­ing; raise rev­en­ues earned from taxes col­lec­ted on gas­ol­ine, tolls, or oth­er trans­port­a­tion-re­lated activ­it­ies; shift money from the gen­er­al fund; or choose some com­bin­a­tion of the three.

Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron Wyden said Tues­day that it’s go­ing to take $100 bil­lion just to keep the trust fund solvent for six more years. But he said that talk of Con­gress do­ing some type of tem­por­ary fix to re­solve the high­way-fund­ing di­lemma is “not the an­swer.” “Re­ly­ing on short-term policies, emer­gency patches, and tem­por­ary ex­ten­sions makes for­ward-look­ing strategies im­possible,” he said, adding that when it comes to in­fra­struc­ture, plan­ning ahead “is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has floated the idea of re­vers­ing a pro­hib­i­tion on states col­lect­ing tolls on in­ter­states to help raise rev­en­ue for road­way re­pairs, part of a more than $300 bil­lion White House trans­port­a­tion bill.

But House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor and oth­er House Re­pub­lic­ans already have in­dic­ated that such op­tions, in­clud­ing rais­ing gas­ol­ine taxes, are a no-go. Can­tor on Wed­nes­day cri­ti­cized policies he said were com­ing from the ad­min­is­tra­tion “that make it just tough­er for work­ing, middle-class fam­il­ies to af­ford to drive on our roads and drive cars and fill their tanks up.”

“So we’re go­ing to look for the kind of cre­at­ive solu­tions that we can ad­equately fund our con­struc­tion needs without tax­ing the work­ing middle-class fam­ily,” he said.

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