Congress Finally Has Its Long-Term Transportation Bill

Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock.com

After years of short-term bills that have left states and trans­port­a­tion agen­cies des­per­ate for cash and long-term cer­tainty, House and Sen­ate ne­go­ti­at­ors on Tues­day re­leased a com­prom­ise trans­port­a­tion bill that will keep pro­grams afloat for five years.

The 1,300-page “Fix­ing Amer­ica’s Sur­face Trans­port­a­tion Act,” or “FAST Act,” is the com­bin­a­tion of trans­port­a­tion bills that cleared both cham­bers earli­er this year and will rep­res­ent the first long-term trans­port­a­tion bill to pass Con­gress in more than a dec­ade.

The fi­nal bill comes up a little short than the six-year bill mem­bers had ori­gin­ally prom­ised: it’s just five years total and spends $296 bil­lion over­all, the res­ult of a hodge­podge of fund­ing mech­an­isms high­lighted by the li­quid­a­tion of a Fed­er­al Re­serve sur­plus ac­count.

But giv­en the dire straits of trans­port­a­tion fin­ance, nobody’s much sweat­ing a lost year when the res­ult is a bill that’s fully paid for.

“You can’t get six years out of” the bill’s par­tic­u­lar set of pay-fors, said Sen. John Thune. “But this is the biggest high­way bill in some time.”

Or as a chip­per James In­hofe, the lead Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an on the bill, put it: “All’s well that ends well.”

The race is now on to get the bill passed be­fore a Fri­day dead­line when money runs out. It’s ex­pec­ted to make it to the House floor on Thursday, but the Sen­ate has a busy agenda this week, with an ex­pec­ted vote-a-rama on Thursday even­ing.

That could leave mem­bers passing yet an­oth­er short-term ex­ten­sion to en­sure fed­er­al trans­port­a­tion dol­lars keep flow­ing to states.

The bill does ap­pear to boost spend­ing for both high­way and trans­it pro­grams in the short term. But it doesn’t provide a per­man­ent fix for the prob­lems loom­ing over trans­port­a­tion spend­ing, nor does it provide the $400 bil­lion over six years that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has said is ne­ces­sary to bring the na­tion’s roads and bridges up to good re­pair.

The fed­er­al gas tax hasn’t been raised or in­dexed to in­fla­tion since 1993, which has left the High­way Trust Fund des­per­ate for cash, with a roughly $16 bil­lion short­fall a year. Without an­oth­er fund­ing source, the fund was pro­jec­ted to run dry in the spring of 2016.

The bill is in­stead paid for by a jumble of pay-fors, in­clud­ing $40 bil­lion from the Fed­er­al Re­serve sur­plus ac­count, which acts as a cush­ion to help the Fed take po­ten­tial losses. The bill also sells 66 mil­lion bar­rels of crude oil from the na­tion’s Stra­tegic Pet­ro­leum Re­serve for $6.2 bil­lion. Among the oth­er fund­ing mech­an­isms is rev­en­ue from a cus­toms fee for air­line and cruise pas­sen­gers.

That com­bin­a­tion would leave Con­gress des­per­ate for more money in five years, but of­fers some small re­lief at the mo­ment. The Sen­ate ori­gin­ally passed a six-year bill with just three years of fund­ing, something the House was set to move as well un­til Rep. Randy Neuge­bauer floated the Fed­er­al Re­serve pro­pos­al.

Still, crit­ics and even some mem­bers have de­cried the use of “gim­micks” to pay for the bill.

Among the hang-ups to reach­ing a fi­nal com­prom­ise were sev­er­al safety pro­vi­sions in the bill, in­clud­ing one re­lated to the amount of rest that truck drivers could take. After safety groups and Demo­crats balked, that lan­guage was re­moved from the bill.

An­oth­er pro­vi­sion that would have lowered the leg­al age of truck drivers from 21 to 18 was also amended to be­come just a pi­lot pro­gram in or­der to gath­er more sup­port.

The bill does con­tain the con­tro­ver­sial reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the Ex­port-Im­port Bank, but last-minute hopes to at­tach a pro­vi­sion reau­thor­iz­ing health care fund­ing for 9/11 re­spon­ders was scuttled.

Neither cham­ber is ex­pec­ted to have much trouble passing the bill, giv­en the pending dead­line and the bi­par­tis­an sup­port for in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing.

(Image via Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock.com)

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