Key senators turn attention to multiyear highway bill

| 3/18/2010

U.S. senators who were reluctant to push forward on a multiyear highway bill because of funding concerns say they are now committed to passing a long-term bill.

Just a few months ago, as House transportation leaders attempted to unveil their proposed five- to six-year transportation overhaul bill, Senate leaders withheld support, urging Congress to tend to immediate matters of shoring up the Highway Trust Fund in the short term.

This week’s passage of HR2847, known as the jobs bill or HIRE Act, ensures that the Highway Trust Fund will be shored up financially for the remainder of 2010. With that out of the way, key senators are now turning their attention to working on a multiyear bill.

“Now that this is behind us, we will focus on moving forward with a transformational transportation authorization that will create jobs and build the infrastructure America needs for economic recovery and long term prosperity,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, stated Wednesday, March 17.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate EPW Committee, made a similar commitment.

“With this (extension) soon to be signed into law, we can now turn our attention to working together on a multiyear reauthorization of the Highway Program,” Inhofe stated online. “As I have long said, transportation spending is one of our primary responsibilities as lawmakers here in Congress.”

Back in the summer and fall of 2009, Boxer and Inhofe resisted a push by House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-MN, on a plan to get a five- or six-year highway bill in the pipeline. Oberstar spoke of the urgency for a new bill because SAFETEA-LU was set to expire in September 2009.

During those talks, Boxer and Inhofe promoted an 18-month extension to buy time for committees to find funding. Lawmakers estimate the cost of a multiyear highway bill at between $400 billion and $500 billion.

Congress still hasn’t pinned down a funding mechanism, which is most likely going to be a combination of things. Ideas right now include a vehicle-mileage tax known as VMT, more toll roads, increases to heavy vehicle taxes and other taxes, and public-private partnerships. The White House is against talk of increasing fuel taxes, but lawmakers have not officially ruled out a fuel-tax increase at this point.

– By David Tanner, associate editor