Lawmakers are long on wish lists, short on time for highway bill

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | 5/5/2015

Facing a deadline later this month, the members of a congressional subcommittee had strong things to say about the need to pass a long-term highway and transportation bill. But talking about getting a long-term bill done – still an important part of the process – is not the same as passing one.

“This is kind of a joke that there’s not even a bill and we’re 26 days away,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security, which held a hearing on Tuesday, May 5.

“It’s clear to me the only thing they’re going to do is patch,” she said.

The deadline of May 31 has been looming since last September, when Congress passed an eight-month extension to keep highways, bridges and transit programs afloat and funded at 2012 levels.

The theory lawmakers had at the time – and continue to have – is that a few months will buy time but still provide a deadline to introduce, debate and pass a five- or six-year reauthorization bill.

Tuesday’s hearing was the third hearing for the subcommittee on the subject. The full Commerce Committee has also had two hearings on the need to pass a multiyear bill.

“As many of you here know, at the end of this month authorization for surface transportation programs will expire,” Subcommittee Chair Deb. Fischer, R-Neb., stated.

“A short-term extension is highly likely,” she added. “According to the latest projections, by August the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money.”

Technically, the deadline for Congress to pass at least a short-term extension of current transportation programs is May 22, and not May 31, due to the Memorial Day recess.

The financial condition of the Highway Trust Fund – which collects federal fuel taxes and other user fees to be dispersed to federal and state agencies to carry out transportation programs – has been poor since 2008. Inflation, fuel efficiency, construction costs, and the fact that gasoline and diesel taxes have not been increased since 1993 have all added up to create an annual shortfall.

A highway bill is not just about funding. It’s also a vessel for highway safety programs and motor carrier safety agencies and programs that carry out policies for trucking.

Fischer noted in her remarks that Congress must act in a way that preserves safety but does not burden businesses in the process.

“As Congress looks to reauthorize surface transportation programs, we must ensure that transportation regulations meet their intended safety goals while providing as little economic harm as possible,” she said.

“Congress must hold regulators to a higher standard, particularly when it comes to balancing the goals of safety with the costs of regulatory compliance. It is key that we incorporate innovative approaches and technology into our regulatory framework.”

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