Senate joins House in signing off on two-month surface transportation funding extension

When the United States House of Representatives last week voted extend current law and authorizes surface transportation programs through the end of July by a steep margin, it was widely expected that the United States Senate and follow their lead. That is exactly what happened on Friday, May 22, with the measures headed to President Obama to be signed into law.

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When the United States House of Representatives last week voted extend current law and authorizes surface transportation programs through the end of July by a steep margin, it was widely expected that the United States Senate and follow their lead. That is exactly what happened on Friday, May 22, with the measures headed to President Obama to be signed into law.

The timing was key for these actions, as surface transportation funding was set to expire on May 31.

What’s more, these measures also mark the 33rd time there has been a short-term extension, or continuing resolution, for surface transportation funding, since the last multiyear authorization, SAFETEA-LU, expired at the end of September 2009.

While these extensions keep funding at the same levels, with the Highway Trust Fund, the primary source of surface transportation funding, essentially insolvent, the current state of U.S. transportation infrastructure remains in a consistent state of disrepair.

This was firmly highlighted by a recent DOT entitled “Beyond Traffic,” which cited various troubling findings regarding the current state of U.S. transportation infrastructure were revealed, including: drivers spend more than 40 hours per year stuck in traffic; 65 percent of the roads they drive on are in less than good condition; one of four bridges they cross needs to be replaced; over the next 30 years, Americans will ask more out of the country’s transportation than ever before, while the country’s population will grow by 70 million, and freight traffic will increase by 45 percent.

Earlier this month, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) issued a statement trumping legislation they will introduce to keep highway and transit funding intact through the end of July.

They said that the Highway Trust Fund has sufficient resources to fund its obligations through the end of July, adding it was their preference to move an extension through the end of the year, but explained more time is needed to reach a bipartisan agreement on offsets.

As in the past, the main issue comes down to funding. Congress has made it clear that the federal gasoline tax, which has remained at the same levels going back to 1993, will not be raised, while leaving the door open to other funding possibilities, including: dedicating funds from corporate tax reform to pay for surface transportation; a proposed streamlining of infrastructure permitting processes; infrastructure banks; and indexing the gas tax to keep pace with inflation; among others.

Industry stakeholders have described the current situation, when it comes to long-term prospects and funding, as unfortunate.

James Burnley, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Venable LLP and former Secretary of Transportation under the late President Ronald Reagan, put it bluntly, describing it as another of the countless signals that there isn’t even a glimmer on the distant horizon of a consensus in Congress on how to fund surface transportation programs.

And Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition of America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, said that here reaction to this news is muted.

“It’s been long expected that Congress would go to an extension,” she explained. “It doesn’t buy much time, but it keeps the program from shutting down and lets Congress go out on holiday—that’s about it. Like what they say about birthdays: it’s better than the alternative. Only in this case, the choice isn’t binary as there is a third possibility – Congress could accept their responsibility and raise the gas tax, or choose another way to raise the money, avoiding endless extensions and a dead-in-the-water surface transportation program.”

From a transportation services provider perspective, Randy Mullett, vice president of government relations for Con-way Inc., said it is disappointing that Congress has been unable to agree on funding mechanism that will support a robust, long-term surface transportation bill, adding that Con-way and many others continue to support a fuel tax increase but it appears to be a non-starter with the leaders of both parties.

“In that light, the short-term extension was expected but it does keep pressure on the Congress to come up with a long-term funding solution sooner rather than later,” he said. “Using highway finding as a catalyst for broader tax reform may help us achieve both but it certainly makes the process more complex. If Congress is unable to reach consensus on highway funding by year-end, I don’t expect to see a long-term bill until after the next President takes office.”

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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