WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of senators said Wednesday they have agreed to the outlines of a long-term transportation spending bill, boosting prospects for ending a stalemate that has kept highway and transit construction programs in limbo since 2008.
The bill would spend about $56 billion a year on highway and transit construction, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. It has the support of Sens. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the committee; David Vitter of Louisiana, the senior Republican on the highway subcommittee, and Max Baucus, D-Mont., the subcommittee’s chairman.
The group is notable in part because its members span the Senate’s ideological gamut. Baucus also chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for figuring out how to pay for the plan.
The plan calls for spending roughly the same amount of money per year adjusted for inflation as was authorized by the last long-term transportation bill, which was passed in 2005 and expired in 2009.
Unable to figure out how to fund a new long-term plan without the politically unpalatable prospect of raising federal gas and diesel taxes, Congress has kept highway and transit programs limping along through a series of short-term cash infusions from the general treasury.
State and local government officials, as well as the construction industry, have complained that without the long-term certainty of government aid they can’t get private financing for major repair or new construction projects that require years to complete. But past long-term transportation bills have been paid for primarily through gas tax revenue, which is declining as Americans drive fewer miles and get better mileage when they do hit the road.
Still unclear is whether the bipartisan bill will authorize spending for two years or six years. Boxer has pushed for a six-year bill; Baucus has suggested two years may be more doable.
Under the plan, a two-year bill would require Congress to find about $12 billion in addition to fuel-tax revenues. A six-year bill would require about $70 billion more.
The plan would also increase funding for a popular Transportation Department loan and loan guarantee program to $1 billion a year. That would result in an estimated $30 billion in additional transportation construction spending by generating private capital, Boxer told reporters.
She said she expects to introduce the bill within the next two weeks and win Senate passage before July 4.
House Republicans are also drafting a bill. It is expected to reduce spending on highway and transit programs by as much as 30 percent.
Going in the other direction, President Barack Obama’s budget calls for spending more than $500 billion over six years. The last long-term bill authorized spending $286 billion over five years.
“We said to them (the administration), if you can show us the money, we’re happy to look at it,” Boxer said. “But right now there isn’t any, so we’re going with what we think we can get through the United States Senate.”
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