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Congress Nears Deal on Its Other Crisis: Highway Funding

Lawmakers veer closer to the edge, but both chambers see a path forward.

While party lead­ers huddle with the White House to try to deal with the na­tion’s press­ing fisc­al prob­lems, Con­gress is inch­ing closer to break­ing an­oth­er crisis: the loom­ing high­way-spend­ing cliff.

Fed­er­al trans­port­a­tion spend­ing is set to ex­pire at the end of the week, but the House could vote as early as Tues­day on a short-term ex­ten­sion that would buy mem­bers more time for a long-term bill. The Sen­ate passed a six-year trans­port­a­tion bill in Ju­ly, and the House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee passed its own six-year bill last week.

With a little ex­tra time—and some co­oper­a­tion—spon­sors say they’re hope­ful that the bills could be merged and passed be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, clear­ing one more im­pend­ing crisis from the packed au­tumn agenda.

The House is set to vote as early as Tues­day on yet an­oth­er short-term ex­ten­sion that would keep trans­port­a­tion fund­ing alive un­til Nov. 20, and aides say the Sen­ate would take it up shortly after that.

But Sen. James In­hofe, chair­man of the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee and lead au­thor of the Sen­ate trans­port­a­tion bill, warned that that ex­ten­sion means Con­gress will inch even closer to trans­port­a­tion hell. If Con­gress doesn’t act by Nov. 20, not only would a high­way bill have to com­pete with fund­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, the ex­pir­a­tion of cer­tain tax pro­vi­sions, and the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, but the High­way Trust Fund would also dip to dan­ger­ously low levels.

Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary An­thony Foxx has warned that start­ing in Novem­ber, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment may have to im­ple­ment cash-man­age­ment pro­ced­ures, mean­ing that states will see a lag in get­ting re­im­bursed. Ac­cord­ing to the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment, the high­way fund will have a pos­it­ive bal­ance through June, but it has to con­serve money if the fund dips be­low a cer­tain level out of cau­tion.

“Mark my words —a fail­ure for Con­gress to en­act a long-term bill by Thanks­giv­ing will res­ult in a lost 2016 con­struc­tion sea­son,” In­hofe said on the floor on Monday. “This is a ter­rible out­come that must be avoided at all cost.”

A multi-year bill pay­ing for road and trans­it agen­cies has proven elu­sive be­cause the 18.4-cent-per-gal­lon fed­er­al gas tax has not been raised or in­dexed to in­fla­tion since 1993, leav­ing the High­way Trust Fund with per­il­ously low bal­ances. To keep the cur­rent level of about $50 bil­lion per year, le­gis­lat­ors had to come up with an ad­di­tion­al $16 bil­lion a year, and a gas-tax in­crease has been a polit­ic­al non­starter.

Con­gress hasn’t moved a bill longer than two years in a dec­ade.

The Sen­ate in Ju­ly passed a $350 bil­lion bill, but in­cluded a hodge­podge of pay-fors that would only cov­er about three years (among them sales from the coun­try’s pet­ro­leum re­serve and cuts to di­vidends paid to large banks). House Re­pub­lic­ans ended up not go­ing for that bill be­cause of the fund­ing gap, leav­ing it up to the House Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee to write its own bill.

That House bill, a $325 bil­lion, six-year bill, passed the com­mit­tee last week, and a spokes­man for the com­mit­tee said it could come to the floor in the next couple of weeks. The fund­ing de­tails on that bill haven’t been re­vealed by the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee yet, and would have to be un­veiled be­fore the bill reaches the floor, un­less the House elects to simply go to con­fer­ence without pay-fors.

Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee chair­man Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania said he was “con­fid­ent that we can re­solve the dif­fer­ences between the House and Sen­ate meas­ures and pro­du­cing a fi­nal product that’s good for our na­tion’s in­fra­struc­ture.” In­hofe and his Demo­crat­ic part­ner, Sen. Bar­bara Box­er, said in a joint state­ment last week that they see a “very short con­fer­ence peri­od” ow­ing to the sim­il­ar­it­ies between the bills.

Those talks will also take place apart from the broad­er budget and debt ceil­ing ne­go­ti­ations between the White House and Con­gress.

Shuster’s short-term ex­ten­sion, however, also tucks in a policy pro­vi­sion that could prove con­tro­ver­sial. It ex­tends un­til 2018 a re­quire­ment that rail­roads in­stall a safety tech­no­logy known as pos­it­ive train con­trol, or PTC. The sys­tem had been re­quired by the end of the year, but many rail­roads had warned that they would not meet that dead­line and would have to start phas­ing out some ser­vice in or­der to avoid vi­ol­at­ing the law.

Some Demo­crats, however, have said that a long-term ex­ten­sion leaves too much time for rail­roads to drag their feet and that ex­ten­sions should only be gran­ted to rail­roads who have shown they are try­ing to meet the dead­line.

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