The Senate approved an $8 billion extension of federal transportation funding on Thursday, one day before the Highway Trust Fund's expiration.
The bill, called the DRIVE Act and sponsored by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), would extend infrastructure spending until Oct. 29, passing on a 91-4 vote and pushing the debate into the fall. The bill was introduced in late June.
The vote came after the
Senate passed its preferred fix, a six-year highway bill negotiated by
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Barbara Boxer
The legislation would increase highway spending from $37.8 billion under current authorization to $45.5 billion in 2021. Over six years, $257.5 billion will be sent to the states.
House Republicans refused to take up that bill and left town on Wednesday, forcing the Senate to accept the three-month stopgap. Industry watchers said the Highway Trust Fund has been extended 34 times since 2009.
Passage of the stopgap Senate bill means the Export-Import Bank’s charter will remain expired through the August recess. The three-month bill sent to President Obama on Thursday does not include language on the Ex-Im Bank renewal.
While many industry stakeholders such as the American Trucking Associations; American Road & Transportation Builders Association; National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association; and Associated General Contractors of America have hailed the legislation, it’s not without detractors.
Associated Equipment Distributors (AED) President and CEO Brian McGuire said in a written statement to Equipment Reporter: “Obviously, we’re pleased to finally see some progress on a long-term highway and transit bill. Senators McConnell, Inhofe and Boxer deserve considerable credit for putting together a real reauthorization plan and building a bipartisan coalition to pass it.
“At the same time, the lack of urgency in the House is inexcusable. For months, we’ve heard promises and platitudes, but have seen no action. Rather than rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, either writing their own bill or taking up the Senate’s legislation, House lawmakers instead decided to leave for the August recess. They’ve hit the road for home while America’s roads and bridges crumble, and Congress has once again left state transportation officials -- and construction contractors, workers and suppliers -- in limbo.”
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) has vehemently opposed Congress’ constant patches to the Highway Trust Fund and has refused to vote in favor of any more patches.
“I have told the House leadership that I simply cannot continue to support short-term patches any longer, especially since we have used these patches almost three dozen times since 2009,” Barletta said in a written statement to Equipment Reporter. “I also am not a fan of the Senate bill, which is supposedly a six-year bill, but contains less than three years of actual funding.”
Barletta said that as someone who came from a family in the road-construction business, and as a former mayor, he knows that contractors and localities need certainty in road funding if they are going to make plans.
“No one is going to buy a half-million-dollar piece of equipment or hire more workers if they don’t know that the contracts will be paid for. Just like states won’t make long-term construction plans without a steady source of federal funds,” Barletta said.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) added in a written statement: “No country became great building its infrastructure three, five, nine months at a time. Congress must understand that we cannot pay for 2015 transportation needs with 1993 dollars. I hope that this is the last short-term extension that President Obama will sign, and that my colleagues will come back from recess, roll up their sleeves, and get to work finding dedicated, sustainable and sufficient revenues to pay for a full reauthorization.”
Christian Klein, AED’s vice president of government affairs, told Equipment Reporter that the association is already preparing its game plan for when Congress reconvenes in September.
“We’re going to work all summer setting up meetings in our districts back home,” Klein said. “We’ve already reached out to every single congressional office and invited them to meet with us. We want Congress to feel the summer heat for not acting on a long-term highway bill.”
When asked why Congress can’t pass long-term funding legislation, Klein postulated that Congress fears pulling the trigger and raising the federal gas tax.
“There seems to be a built-in belief (in Congress) that any tax would be political suicide. We favor an increase of the federal gas tax; the last time it was increased, I was an intern. If they (Congress) were to index the gas tax into inflation, we’d have more than enough to solve the problem.”